Memorial Meeting for Max Perutz , Cambridge, 21 September, 2002

Address by John Meurig Thomas

In the universities and academies of the world, Max Perutz was acknowledged both as one of the foremost scientists of the 20th century and as the architect of arguably the most famous and successful research laboratory now in existence. But Max was a multifaceted human being, a citizen of the world deeply immersed in its diverse cultures. And among his many qualities were:

He was a gentle, kindly tolerant and forgiving lover of people, particularly the young.

Through my friendship with him ever since I came to Cambridge twenty four years ago, I benefited enormously from his wisdom, guidance and humour, which I grew to appreciate during our numerous walks around playing fields adjacent to our homes, while strolling through The Botanical Garden, wandering in Wandelbury or sitting for tea in the intimacy of our respective homes.

(Slide 1 -Max & Gisela, 1962)

In several of our discussions, Gisela and Vivien participated. No-one who knew the Perutzes could fail to recognise the profound, unbreakable bond that bound Gisela and Max. In many of his most important enterprises and adventures she was a fellow voyager who steered the ship to safe harbours, and in her unique way played a crucial part in sustaining him during his long, labyrinthine path towards the sunlit uplands of protein crystallography.

This photograph (Slide 1 ), taken 40 years ago, when Max won the Nobel Prize, would be an ideal subject for a latter day Vermeer.

Imbued with a great historical sense Max loved Cambridge and the things within it that have changed very little over the years - the buildings, the bridges, the lawns, the river, the gardens and trees. Isaac Newton possibly, and certainly Charles Darwin, Clerk Maxwell and Gowland Hopkins, would have heard the same bells, looked up at the same spires, perceived the same patterns of light and shade in the beautiful East Anglian skyscapes and heard the rustle of the wind though the same weeping willows.

Max delighted in the beauty of the natural world. He was the kind of man who, before starting his laboratory work at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology on a spring morning, would occasionally take a walk on the Gog-Magog hills, filling his heart and soul in so doing, with pantheistic pleasure.

I should like now to dwell on some aspects of Max's writings, since they reflect his remarkable personality, When he agreed to review a book, he researched the topic as thoroughly as the author (often more so ), a process that entailed delving into the University Library and recruiting by telephone or letter, the expertise of his enormous, world-wide network of friends. (Max would never have adopted the policy of the late Malcolm Muggeridge who once said "I would rather praise this book than read it"),

The opening paragraphs of Max's popular articles and book reviews never failed to grip one, and his ensuing paragraphs, mellifluously expressed, always riveted one's attention.

(Slide 2 -N .Y .Review of Books)

This article (dealing with a book on Louis Pasteur) was one of his most devastating and uncompromising book reviews. It was a justified attack on a historian of science, done with irrefutable logic and argument, yet without rancour or vituperation.

Max rejected as nonsense the thesis, popular among modern sociologically oriented, philosophers of science, that scientific truth is relative and shaped by a scientist's personal concerns including his or her political, philosophical, even religious instincts. Hence the reason for choosing Max Planck's magnificent assertion: "There is a real world independent of our senses; the laws of nature were not invented by man, but forced upon him by that natural world. They are the expression of a rational world order. " "The entire approach emphasising relative truth seems to me" said Max "a piece of humbug masquerading as an academic discipline, it pretends that its practitioners can set themselves up as judges over scientists whose science they fail to understand".

The opening words of Max's now famous New Yorker (1985) article entitled "Enemy Alien", which is an amalgam of the harrowing and the humorous, also begins in an unforgettable way:

"It was a cloudless Sunday morning in May of 1940. The policeman who came to arrest me said that I would be gone for only a few days, but I packed for a long journey. I said goodbye to my parents ".

Although Max would never regard himself as a poet, his peers did. And Rockefellar University bestowed upon him the Lewis Thomas Prize to honour the activities of the scientist as poet.

(Slide 3- Rockefellar University Notice)

"Imagination comes first in both artistic and scientific creation - which makes for one culture rather than two - but while the artist is confined only by the prescriptions imposed by himself and the culture surrounding him, the scientist has Nature and his critical colleagues always looking over his shoulder". Max Perutz ("Is Science Necessary?")

This is an apt quotation, as Max was interested in the role of the imagination in scientific endeavour.

If you accept T .E. Eliot's thesis that "Poetry concerns itself with the element of surprise and the elevation of a new experience", consider Max's Preface to the book entitled "Hitler's Gift" published last year.

Max begins the Preface with a dialogue with one of his Viennese friends of the 1930s who asked him

"What do you think of Fifi ?
"Who's Fifi?" Max replied.
"Don't you remember, the girl with the dachshund?
"What about her?"
"Haven't you seen 'Born Free', the film?
"l've read it"
"She emigrated to Kenya, abbreviated Josephine to Joy and married the game warden Adamson?".
"Had Fifi remained in Vienna
", Max asserts, "She would have continued to keep dachshunds. It was her emigration that enabled her to keep a lioness instead". "That story" says Max "is symbolic of the greater opportunities many of us found in our new homes ".

In the September 1978 issue of Scientific American, Max begins his wonderfully anecdotal, humorous self-deprecatory article on Haemoglobin with the following arresting opening paragraph:

"When I was a student, I wanted to solve a great problem in biochemistry. One day I set out from Vienna, my home town, to find the Great Sage at Cambridge. He taught me that the riddle of life is hidden in the structure of proteins, and that X-ray crystallography was the only method capable of solving it. The Sage was John Desmond Bernal, who had just discovered the rich X-ray diffraction patterns given by crystalline proteins. We really did call him Sage, because he knew everything, and I became his disciple ".

This article is teeming with incidental asides not normally found, even in popular scientific articles, e.g. how he absent-mindedly left a thermos flask full of carp haemoglobin on the platform of a London Underground Station, etc. So when, fifteen years later, I found myself struggling with Jesuitical sub-editors of Scientific American concerning my own article on catalysis, I asked Max how on earth he had succeeded to have published his delightfully evocative account.

"Look", he said, "they re-wrote it completely. It was not what I had written. The science was acceptable, but all the liveliness and asides had been ruthlessly expunged. So when the final proofs arrived, I kept them for a little time. I then told them to publish the article as they had modified it - but NOT under my name. This caused alarm, and they relented; and it was then accepted in its original form ".

(Slide 4- Advert for Science is No Quiet Life)

Max was not only a fine expositor in the written word, he was also an excellent lecturer. His lectures had a mesmeric charm, partly because they were interspersed with literary and historical incidents involving his friends and scientific adversaries. They also charmed you because he was so unpretentious and so passionately, almost obsessively, aroused by the joy of science. In addition, he always injected an element of theatre and drama into his talks.

I heard him lecture some thirty times covering a wide range of topics. No two lectures were exactly the same. He took each as a new task with well-defined objectives to be reached. Many were virtuoso performances, like the one we, at Peterhouse, invited him to give to the Student Science Society (The Kelvin Club) to mark his 60 years as a member of the College - he joined as a graduate student in 1936.

I had tried to convince him to speak on the topic "What every scientist should know", but he refused, because he said he did not know what every scientist should know! He suggested a much better title: Science is No Quiet Life. I knew that he spent .a great deal of time preparing this lecture, lavishing the care upon it what would be given to such a task by a performing artist.

On the morning of the lecture, which had been widely advertised throughout Cambridge, Max phoned at 9am. "Bad luck John. I have to cancel my lecture this evening. I have a terrible sore throat". It was obvious from his voice that he was unwell.

[Now I have an operatic friend in Wales and he tells me that it is well known for members of the international operatic fraternity to develop sore throats on the day they are due to make their debut in the famous Opera Houses of the World. This kind of occupational hazard, I believe, afflicted Max from time to time. ]

Max did give that lecture in the Babbage Theatre, two weeks later, and it was a brilliant success. I am pleased to tell that we videoed it, copies will be on sale at the reception afterwards.

Given the background to that story, you can fully understand why the following words of Dame Margot Fonteyn appealed to him. They appear in Max's "Commonplace Book", along with other aphorisms:

"I cannot imagine feeling lackadaisical about a performance. I treat each encounter as a matter of life and death. The important thing I have learned over the years is the difference between taking one's work seriously and taking oneself seriously. The first is imperative and the second disastrous".

No picture of Max would be complete without reference to his letters, which were a huge delight to receive.

(Slide 5- Postcard from National Academy of Science to J.M. Thomas in Cambridge)

This postcard from Washington D.C. illustrates the point. He first talks about the deep thought and compassion in Einstein's face. Then comes an exquisite piece of Max's humanity. "When I arrived a four-year-old child had climbed up the statue and was picking Einstein's nose ".

One Saturday morning in January 1998, I ran into my old friend Aileen Kelly, an expert in Russian literature. She was deliriously happy for she had just received what she described as one of the most charming letters of her life. It had come from Max.

(Slide 6- Letter to Dr. Aileen Kelly, January 1998)

I include only a very small fraction of the letter here. Between this first paragraph and the second, two others (not shown) occur, in which he expresses his joy about learning that Chekhov's views on the synomynity of the creative processes in the humanities and the sciences coincided with his own. Then comes a piece of pure Perutz. He animadverts on Chekhov's plays short stories and says:

"I find that the people in his plays are trapped by their characters rather than their circumstances".

Then he goes on to quote Shakespeare.

(Slide 7- Group Photograph of the Perutz family with John Meurig and Margaret Thomas taken on Perutz's 80th birthday)

It is perhaps not widely appreciated that, in his quiet, understated and witty way, Max was also an adept in after dinner speaking, and especially in after dinner conversation: When, in September 1994, to mark his 80th birthday, Peterhouse put on a Feast in his honour, he responded to the toast for him that night by giving an account of "My First Great Discovery". He held us in awe as he began in the following way:

"When walking one day under the red sandstone cliffs to the west of Budleigh Salterton, my friend John Carter's father, a retired Indian Civil Servant, noticed grey balls of rock of various sizes protruding from the walls of the cliff'.

I have no time to expatiate further on that speech, except, first, to say that Max discovered that radioactive nodules occurred in those grey balls, and, second, to quote how he ended his speech. He told us that John Carter, his contemporary in 1936-38 had, alas, died of a brain tumour, aged 40. He then ruminated on the fact that he was "still alive, aged 80, happily surrounded by my family and so many good friends ".

"There are other things to be thankful for: to have lived in a country free from oppression and also from war - Falklands apart -these 49 years; to have worked among the British scientific community where you are judged, not by your origins, nor by your religion, nor by your politics, nor by your connections in high places, nor by your wealth, but solely by the quality of your work; to have enjoyed and to be still enjoying generous support for my work from both sides of the Atlantic; to be tolerated by my colleagues at the laboratory and here (Peterhouse) with affection and without being made to feel a burden, and finally for having received so many honours which in my youth I never expected to come my way, though I used to tease my son when he was little and when peerages were still hereditary that one day I would become Lord Haemoglobin, and he would inherit the title whether he wants to or not".

That after-dinner speech was a carefully crafted beautifully presented one. But he could exhilarate you, and win over your heart and mind, with his impromptu comments, as on the occasion ( on 31st October, 2001) when some of the Professors of Chemistry in Cambridge and the Past and Present President of the Royal Society of Chemistry gave him and Fred Sanger a lunch to celebrate their election as Honorary Fellows of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

(Slide 8 -Photograph of Max Perutz and his colleague Fred Sanger - two chemists, three Nobel Prizes)

While we were drinking our coffee, I asked him to tell us what was exciting his scientific curiosity. In a marvellous, impromptu account, he preceded to highlight the milestones in the study of amyloid proteins from 1920 onwards, and their possible role in Huntingdon Chorea and Alzheimer's Disease, work which engaged his thoughts with consuming intensity up until minutes before he was admitted to Addenbrooke's Hospital, 12 weeks later. It was another Perutz masterpiece.

Of Fred Sanger he said, at the latter's retirement tea, that Fred had been wrong only twice in his entire scientific life. Once when, as a young man, he said that haemoglobin had five polypeptide chains. And second, when he remarked several years later that the Nobel Prize comes only once.

Five days after Max attended that celebratory lunch in Peterhouse, he was sitting in the front row of the Cockcroft Lecture Theatre when I gave an address to the Cambridge Philosophical Society on "The Genius of Michael Faraday" (Faraday along with Rutherford, Pasteur, Lawrence Bragg, Bernal -as well as George Eliot, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Manzoni -was one of his heroes). I ended my lecture by showing a slide of the verse in the Book of Job from Faraday's Bible. It was Faraday's favourite verse, heavily marked by him.

Four days later, on Saturday 9th November, Max came to lunch at Peterhouse, as he had done regularly for thirty years - he relished conversation there especially with young scholars. Usually he would sit next to a new Fellow, just to be friendly to a new member of the community. But on this Saturday, he came straight to me, handed me a pen and paper and requested that I write out for him Faraday's favourite verse:

"If I justify myself my own mouth shall condemn me;
if I say I am perfect, it shall also make me perverse

That verse appealed greatly to Max: amongst other things it is an injunction not to boast. Max, like Faraday, never boasted. He was very much like Faraday in many respects: they each liked talking about and showing science to children; they each kept 'commonplace books'; and they each declined knighthoods. But there were other kinships: they were each prodigiously hard working; they were each exceptional intellects and wonderful experimentalists. Each was a humble, decent human being, kind and respectful of others. His written work, like Faraday's, was refreshingly free of pettiness and full of self criticism. Like Faraday, Max Perutz was a great scientific adventurer; and like Faraday he knew innately which scientific problems to go for. In the florescence of modern science, well nigh every problem that one encounters is interesting: not all problems are important. Max chose the important ones, and that selectively he taught to those who worked alongside him.

Max was probably a better negotiator than Faraday. One example of his supreme skill in this regard is manifest in the creation of the magnificent Laboratory of Molecular Biology, opened in May 1962. You may recall that in 1953, when Sir Nevill Mott was elected Cavendish Professor, to succeed Sir Lawrence Bragg (who moved to the Royal Institution), he made it clear that, notwithstanding its success, the MRC group led by Max, would be expected to vacate the rooms they occupied in the Cavendish. Max pleaded with and tried to persuade many Heads of Departments in Cambridge to find accommodation for his burgeoning team of excellent collaborators - the Heads of Chemistry, Metallurgy, Physiology, Anatomy and many others were approached. There was temporary accommodation; but nothing really concrete and permanent appeared in sight until Max brought his latent excellent negotiating skills to bear.

(Slide 9- Colour Photo of Max Perutz 1941-2002)

When I asked him years later how he accomplished such an achievement, he retorted, quoting a former Fellow of Trinity, that, in Cambridge, to reach your goal you must learn to combine the linear persistence of the tortoise with the circuitous locomotion of the hare.

Max had a generosity and nobility of spirit. The warmth of his personality and decency radiated a feeling of human goodness which induced others almost by cultural and intellectual osmosis to behave sanely, especially because he exuded an inner joy that stemmed from a love of knowledge for its own sake and a compassionate concern for others.

Max Perutz's monument is to be found in the whole of molecular biology, a subject which, along with a few other individuals, he effectively founded. To those who had the good fortune to know him, he will always be remembered as Max, the quintessence of a great and good man, someone who made you glad to be alive.

1. This transcript was sent by Christine Cardin who attended the service and who also write a report of the service published on page 27 of the December 2002 issue of 'Crystallography news'
2. There are some small photographs printed in 'Crystallography News' but they are too small to reproduce well on this website, so the 'Slide Captions' have just been left in the text.

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