Book review: Max Perutz and the secret of life

This brief book review by Frank Norman was first published in the 2011/2012 Mill Hill Essays.

This very readable biography lays out the life and work of Max Perutz, explaining quite a bit of his scientific work and also covering his role as head of a major research lab. He was a chemist who worked in a department of physics on a biological problem. He played a key role in helping to usher in the science of molecular biology, a field that has dominated biomedical research in the past half-century. He was one of the first crystallographers and devoted himself to a lifelong quest to understand the structure and function of haemoglobin.

The young Perutz came to Britain as a refugee from Austria in the 1930s. In Cambridge he appreciated the freedom that was given to young scientists to pursue their own ideas. After the war he was made head of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, a position he retained for 18 years, including the hothouse years when Francis Crick, Sydney Brenner, John Kendrew and others were all working there.

Ferry is not afraid to paint Perutz as a real man, with foibles and faults as well as “the will of an elephant and a colossal attention span”. He had a strong sense of his own inadequacy but also, paradoxically, a strong belief that he would achieve much in science, and a strong belief in the truth of his own ideas even to the extent that he sometimes held on to them too firmly. Perutz had a talent for writing and had definite views on the way that science should be communicated:

“the presentation of a scientific discovery is, or at least it should be, a work of art. Scientific papers ought to be written so that they grip the interested reader, to be so clear that you don’t have to read each sentence twice, and to explain to the reader not only what you have done but also why”.

One of the most heart-stopping parts of the book is the description of Perutz’s elation at hearing he had been awarded the Nobel Prize, in 1962. He was

“deeply moved by the Royal Swedish Academy’s decision to elevate me, a man of modest gifts, to the Olympian heights of a Nobel laureate”.

Ferry writes that “after thirty years, his decision to defy his parents and study chemistry had been proved justified beyond doubt, and the fear of being a disappointment to them had finally been put to rest”.

Max Perutz and the secret of life, by Georgina Ferry is published by Chatto & Windus, 2007.

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