Max Perutz's polite, self-effacing manners belied a determined, highly intelligent mind that competed with the best of his generation of Central European scientific exiles from Nazism.
I went first to his office in mid-September 1951 as a possible addition to the Unit of the Study of the Molecular Structure of Biological Systems in Cambridge. During a later walk to give me a glimpse of the Cambridge colleges, I sensed Max's intense excitement about proteins and his hopes of eventually working out the 3-D structure of haemoglobin.
Where I should live after my move from Copenhagen now happily became the dilemma of that afternoon. Max showed no hesitancy in knocking on successive doors facing Jesus Green until a landlady told us she still had a free room.
Max shared a tiny two-room Cavendish Laboratory suite with John Kendrew. Next to it was an almost square room, which Max soon got Sir Lawrence Bragg to assign as an office for Francis Crick and me. This let John and him do their experimental work in the lab beyond without being subjected to Francis's boisterous voice.
From the moment of my arrival, Max made me feel very much wanted, liking the idea of a visitor from the world of genetics who wanted the gene attacked at the molecular level. When I momentarily lost my American fellowship support, Max told me he would find monies to keep me on, despite my still-total ignorance of crystallographic methods. He was likewise a firm supporter of Francis after he and Sir Lawrence Bragg had their unfortunate blow-up one Saturday morning in October 1951.
Max was a valued reader of scientific manuscripts, giving me much help on my first X-ray crystallographic paper – one written in the fall of 1952 describing the helical structure of Tobacco Mosaic Virus.
A decade later, when I wrote The Molecular Biology of the Gene, I constantly had Max in mind. If he would enjoy it, it should later be widely read by university students. Then I never anticipated Max would later also take so much pleasure as a writer. He let Cold Spring Harbor Press publish three years ago a collection of his essays under the title I Wish I'd Made You Angry Earlier.
Being unpleasant was never Max's way of life. Remaining calm was one of his secrets in so successfully administering the Laboratory of Molecular Biology for more than 30 years. That he took so much joy in the scientific triumphs of the lab's many other stars was equally important.
James Watson is co-discoverer of the DNA double helix.Reuse content