Obituary: Sir John Kendrew

Sir John Meurig Thomas
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:41

John Kendrew will be remembered for many contributions to science, but three stand out: his determination, in atomic detail, of the structure of myoglobin, a protein found in muscle, the function of which is to take oxygen from haemoglobin; his role as the founder editor (1959) of the Journal of Molecular Biology; and the setting up of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, which will forever be regarded as his monument.

From 1947, for 27 years, Kendrew was College Lecturer, Official Fellow and Director of Studies in Natural Science at Peterhouse, Cambridge. As is typical of Oxbridge Fellows, he also undertook other college duties, serving successively as Librarian, Proelector, Steward, Wine Steward and Custodian of the college's paintings and portraits. And when Cambridge University introduced its new Tripos on the History and Philosophy of Science, he also supervised undergraduates reading those subjects.

But Kendrew, while serving as a teaching Fellow, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1962 (which he shared with his fellow Petrean Max Perutz), and also served as President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1974. And when he handed on his responsibilities to his successor, Dr Klug (now Sir Aaron Klug OM, President of the Royal Society), whom he was instrumental in recruiting to Peterhouse, he too won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (in 1982) while a teaching Fellow.

He was born in Oxford in 1917, the son of a climatologist father and an art historian mother who carried out distinguished work in Italy on Veronese and Florentine painting. He attended the Dragon School, Oxford, from 1923 to 1930 and Clifton College from 1930 to 1936. Entering Trinity College, Cambridge, as a Scholar in 1936, he became, in due course, Senior Scholar in Natural Sciences when he took the Tripos Part I in Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics and Biochemistry with first class Honours and another First in Part II Chemistry.

After graduating in 1939, he spent the first few months of the Second World War doing research on reaction kinetics under the supervision of Dr. E.A. Moelwyn Hughes. He then became a member of the Air Ministry Research Establishment (later Telecommunications Research Establishment) and worked on radar. In 1940 he joined the staff of Sir Robert Watson-Watt, and for the rest of the war was engaged in operational research at Royal Air Force Headquarters, successively in coastal command, Middle East and South East Asia: he held the honorary rank of Wing Commander, RAF.

During the war years, his scientific interest became more biological, largely because of the influence of two great scientists. First, the brilliant polymathic physicist J.D. Bernal, with whom he rubbed shoulders in Ceylon. When the Japanese surrendered, he returned from the Far East via Pasadena where he spoke to Linus Pauling at the California Institute of Technology. Among the varied provinces of Pauling's protean genius, his penetrating insights into the structural elucidation of (small) biological molecules was particularly exciting. Pauling's stimulus greatly influenced Kendrew, so that, when he returned to Cambridge in 1946, he had already decided to commence work on the structure of proteins.

At the Cavendish Laboratory he began his collaboration with Max Perutz (who had earlier identified haemoglobin as his target) under the direction of Sir Lawrence Bragg. What stimulated Perutz and what also sustained him and Kendrew for over a decade was the certain knowledge, traceable to a seminal paper on the structures of pepsin in the mid-1930s by Bernal and Dorothy Crowfoot (later Hodgkin), that crystalline macromolecules (like the blood protein haemoglobin and myoglobin consisting respectively of approximately 12,000 and 2,600 atoms) had each of the constituent atoms situated in a precise site, and that the rabbinically complicated task of determining these sites could, in principle, be retrieved from the tens of thousands of diffraction spots that crystals of these proteins yielded when exposed to X-rays.

The scientific methods harnessed and brilliantly extended by Kendrew and Perutz had some of their origins in the universities of Glasgow, where J.M. Robertson invented the heavy atom substitution method, and of Utrecht, where the Dutch crystallographer Bijvoet showed how the three-dimensional structure of complicated molecules could be retrieved from the X-ray diffraction patterns of two different heavy-atom variants. Kendrew, assisted by two visiting American scientists who came to the Cavendish, Howard Dintzis and Richard Dicker- son, succeeded in obtaining crystals of gold- and palladium-substituted myoglobin. These proved crucial. Kendrew, with his formidable mathematical skills, could also take advantage of the emergence in Cambridge of the EDSAC-1 and EDSAC-2 digital computers, which he exploited for the Fourier analysis of his diffraction data.

When, in 1957, Kendrew solved the structure of myoglobin, Perutz confessed to being envious. But shortly thereafter, he too, using mercury-substituted haemoglobin, reached the promised land. What was particularly exhilarating was the realisation that the twisted and folded helical chains that Kendrew found in myoglobin, were also present in Perutz's haemoglobin. This galvanised activity in molecular biology world-wide.

Adolf Butenandt, the eminent German Nobel Laureate, set his colleagues in Munich the task of using chemical methods (such as those pioneered by Frederick Sanger) to trace the sequence of amino acids in the proteins studied by Kendrew and Perutz. The chemical results harmonised beautifully with those of crystallography. (It was Butenandt who nominated Kendrew and Perutz for the Nobel Prize).

Under Lawrence Bragg's aegis, in 1949, Perutz and Kendrew formed the newly constituted Medical Research Council Unit for Molecular Biology in the Cavendish, the forerunner of the MRC's Laboratory of Molecular Biology; and after Bragg moved to become Director of Royal Institution (RI) in London, they both were appointed Honorary Readers of the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory there, posts that they held from 1954 to 1968. In 1963, at a famous Friday Evening Discourse at the RI, they unveiled to a dazzled lay audience the secrets of their discovery.

Kendrew's own interest in fundamental research began to wane in the mid 1960s as he gradually turned his brilliant mind to matters of policy. He had already served as Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence (from 1960 to 1963); and then he became Chairman and Secretary General of the International Council of Scientific Unions from 1974 to 1980, a body of which he became President in 1988 to 1990.

Fluent in Italian, German and French and immersed in Renaissance culture and music, Kendrew was a committed European. When Vicki Weisskopf and Leo Szilard called him and Jim Watson (immediately after the Stockholm Nobel Ceremony in 1962), to discuss the prospects of establishing a European Molecular Biology Organisation (Embo) like the Nuclear Science Centre (Cern) in Geneva, he responded enthusiastically. Supported by other European molecular biologists, notably Perutz, Jacob (France), Friedrich-Freska (Germany), Ole Maalo (Denmark), Jeffries Wyman (US) and, crucially, Ephraim Katchalski-Kazir of Israel (who persuaded Golda Meir to give $20,000 towards the nascent Embo), Kendrew led the way.

Amongst other things it culminated in the creation of one of the finest biological research centres in the world, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) at Heidelberg of which he was the founding Director (for 20 years).

Kendrew served as Trustee of the British Museum, Chairman of the National Science Advisory Board of the UK National Commission for Unesco, member of the BBC Scientific Advisory Group, and member of the Board of Governors of the Weizmann Institute in Israel from 1964 to the time of his death.

In 1981, he took on the Presidency of St John's College, Oxford, where his diplomatic skills, artistic and cultural tastes and formidable intellect were appreciated by the Fellows and students. Upon his retirement, he returned to live in Cambridge, where he was Honorary Fellow of both Trinity and Peterhouse.

He was appointed CBE in 1963 and knighted in 1974. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society and an Honorary Foreign Member of many national academies. He received numerous honorary doctorates, one of the first from Complutense University, Madrid and the last, just a few weeks before he died, from his Alma Mater.

John Kendrew was a shy, private person who exuded dignified charm. It was always a pleasure meeting him. Even his answerphone message: "Please be patient and I shall get back to you as soon as possible", captured one's mind and heart. He will be mourned by many throughout the world.

John Meurig Thomas

John Cowdray Kendrew, biochemist: born Oxford 24 March 1917; Deputy Chairman, MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology, Cambridge 1946-75; Fellow, Peterhouse, Cambridge 1947-75; Reader at Davy-Faraday Laboratory, Royal Institution, London 1954-68; FRS 1960; Nobel Prize for Chemistry (jointly with Max Perutz) 1962; CBE 1963; Kt 1974; Director General, European Molecular Biology Laboratory 1975-82; President, St John's College, Oxford 1981- 87; died 23 August 1997.

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