Max Perutz, the father of molecular biology and the man who brought together two of the most famous names in science, died early yesterday from cancer at the age of 87.
Dr Perutz was part of a brilliant group of young Cambridge scientists who in the 1950s forged a new scientific discipline that unlocked the molecular secrets of life, including the double-helix structure of DNA.
He was responsible for the best-known double act in 20th- century science by introducing a brash young American called Jim Watson to a deceptively languid Englishman named Francis Crick.
Dr Perutz, who oversaw the development of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) from its ancestral home at the Cavendish Laboratory, can lay claim to being one of the most influential scientists to work in Britain.
Professor Sir George Radda, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, said that Dr Perutz was undoubtedly one of the "scientific giants" of the 20th century, who fostered nine Nobel Prizes during his time as head of the LMB.
Sir George said: "The impact of Max's work remains a foundation on which science is being undertaken today. His Nobel prizewinning work on protein structure is more relevant now than ever as we turn attention to the smallest building blocks of life to make sense of the human genome and mechanisms of disease."
Dr Perutz was born in 1914 into a wealthy family of textile manufactures in Vienna. His parents tried to persuade him to study law in preparation for entering the family business. However, a teacher awakened his interest in chemistry and, after studying at Vienna University, he arrived in Cambridge in 1936 to study for a doctorate under the great crystallographer and chemist J D Bernal. After Hitler's invasion of Austria and Czechoslovakia, he became a political refugee and made Britain his home. From 1938 until the early 1950s, Dr Perutz bridged the gap between physics and biology almost single-handedly by cycling each day between the Cavendish Laboratory and the Molteno Institute, which housed the professor of biology and parasitology.
His tour de force was to study the complex three- dimensional shapes of life's building blocks – the proteins – by studying the scattering of X-rays as they passed through a protein crystal on the way to a photographic plate.
The work was painstakingly slow but Dr Perutz was the first to see the structure of haemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying substance of the blood, which earned him a Nobel prize for chemistry in 1962.
His self-effacing manner and courtesy endeared him to generations of young scientists, inspired by his love of making science popular with the public.
Although Dr Perutz "retired" as chairman of the LMB in 1979, he continued to work until his death. One study, completed just before Christmas, is to be published in a journal later this year, one of more than a hundred papers published since his retirement. He was also a gifted essayist and promoted young writers trying to make sense of the complexities of modern scientific research.
Richard Henderson, the director of the LMB, said: "Max was in inspiration to many generations of scientists who knew him. In addition to being a brilliant and far-sighted scientist, he was a kind, thoughtful and gracious man."
Sir George said: "He has inspired countless young scientists and encouraged them to communicate their research in plain language to those whose lives are changed through their work.
"He will be sorely missed, but his life and work will continue to shape science and motivate new generations to understand the way the body functions and how this will help us manage health and disease."Reuse content