Architects of Structural Biology: Bragg, Perutz, Kendrew and Hodgkin
By John Meurig Thomas
Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, University of Cambridge
When Max Perutz and John Kendrew, principal founders of structural molecular biology, set about, in the late 1940s, to solve the structures of haemoglobin and myoglobin, many scientists, notably developmental biologists and physiologists, ridiculed the name molecular biology and others accused them and their team, which later included Crick and Watson, of practicing biochemistry without license. Yet the revolution that they, Dorothy Hodgkin and their mentor Lawrence Bragg, initiated in the early 1950s led to a new era in modern medicine, and had a transformative influence on all aspects of biology.
In addition, the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (under the aegis of the U.K. Medical Research Council) that they established in 1962 in Cambridge, is arguably one of the most successful advanced research centres ever. Twenty three Nobel Laureates (11 of them from the USA) have worked there; and numerous medicines used world-wide for the treatment and cure of breast cancer, arthritis and life-threatening respiratory conditions have emerged from discoveries made there.
How was such a successful laboratory founded and managed? And how did the four protagonists – three chemists and a physicist – and other great contemporaries of theirs interact? This talk will address these questions and describe individual personalities, achievements, idiosyncrasies, and the roles of J. D. Bernal (friend of Picasso, Paul Robeson and Earl Mountbatten), Francis Crick, Aaron Klug and David Phillips, who solved the first structure of an enzyme at the Royal Institution (RI). It was at the RI, and later in Departments of Mineralogy and Textile Physics, that Bernal and Astbury first investigated the structures of “living molecules”. The rivalry between the Cambridge trio and the brilliant, charismatic, U.S. scientist Linus Pauling will also be discussed.