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How an unlikely pair became legendary molecular biologists

In 1962 the Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded jointly to John Kendrew (1917-1997) and Max Perutz (1914-2002). They were the first scientists to accurately describe the three-dimensional structure of proteins. Enzymes, hormones, and antibodies are only a few examples of the many kinds of proteins present in all living organisms and knowledge of their structure is essential for progress in curing human diseases. Consequently, Kendrew and Perutz have become legendary scientists whose research is celebrated internationally.

Kendrew and Perutz were only three years apart in age. They were close colleagues for nearly 30 years, first at the Cavendish Laboratory and then at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, and both were fellows of Peterhouse College. Kendrew and Perutz founded the Medical Research Council-supported Molecular Biology Research Unit at the Cavendish with Perutz as director and Kendrew as deputy director.  It became a magnet for outstanding staff, such as Fred Sanger and Sydney Brenner, research students, such as Francis Crick and Hugh Huxley, and postdoctoral fellows, such as James Watson and Michael Rossmann, all deeply interested in what came to be known as molecular biology. What began as a tiny research unit grew enormously over seven decades and produced more than a dozen Nobel laureates and 50 fellows of the Royal Society.

Although Kendrew and Perutz worked closely together for many years, they were an unlikely pair. They had very different backgrounds, lifestyles, and work styles. Perutz emigrated from Austria to England when he was 22 to be a research student with John Desmond Bernal at the Cavendish, whereas Kendrew was born in Oxford into a professional middle-class family. During World War II Perutz was classified an enemy alien by the British and held in an internment camp in Canada, whereas Kendrew left the military as an honorary wing commander after six years of distinguished service. For Perutz his immediate family and hands-on bench research were central to his life, whereas Kendrew was a bachelor with wide ranging interests outside of science. Kendrew confessed that he never felt himself to be “a fanatic for laboratory bench research.”

Photograph of John Kendrew, left, and Max Perutz, right, in the model room at the MRC LMB in the 1960s. Reproduced with permission from the MRC LMB, Cambridge.

Kendrew was, however, an extraordinary organizer and manager of research, and wise enough to recognize the usefulness of early computers in Cambridge for rapidly handling huge sets of crystallographic data. To a large extent these qualities enabled him to be the first to determine the three-dimensional structure of a protein, myoglobin. Jeannine Alton, who catalogued Kendrew’s archives for the Bodleian Library, felt that his organizational and managerial skills were fostered by participation in operational research during World War II and led him to “a kind of bureaucratic apotheosis in the sustained effort of accuracy required for the long haul to the final successful three-dimensional picture.” It would take an additional five years for researchers to determine the three-dimensional structure of another protein, lysozyme. Today several thousand protein structures are solved each year.

By the early 1960s, after less than 15 years in research, Kendrew had made up his mind to significantly reduce his research commitments. He said that he was bored with research and thought that “future protein structures were not going to be so interesting.” Kendrew insisted that his departure from academic research was not influenced by the Nobel Prize. Perhaps his responsibilities during World War II, and shortly thereafter his desire to join the scientific civil service, caused him to question the importance of further academic research for himself.

Kendrew continued on as a very active fellow of Peterhouse and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Molecular Biology, but took on new administrative duties such as scientific advisor to the Ministry of Defense and chairman of the Defense Scientific Advisory Council. He became a key figure in debates on molecular biology in the United Kingdom and in efforts to establish an international European Laboratory of Molecular Biology. He was appointed director-general of the new European Laboratory of Molecular Biology in 1975, a position he held until 1982 when he was appointed president of St. John’s College, Oxford. In 1987 Kendrew retired but continued to travel extensively, attend concerts, and participate in college life at Oxford and Cambridge until his death in August 1997 at the age of 80.

As for Perutz, he continued to carry out research on protein structure for more than six decades, right up to his death in February 2002 at the age of 87. It took him 30 years to determine the three-dimensional structure of hemoglobin, prompting him to say in a self-deprecating manner that he could have done it in half the time if he had been a bit brighter. Today Perutz is an iconic figure, revered by many in and out of science because of his unwavering dedication to hands-on bench research and his grand achievements in research, leadership, writing, and humanitarian causes. Although an unlikely pair, Kendrew and Perutz will be remembered as two of the most gifted, accomplished, and influential pioneers among twentieth-century molecular biologists.

Featured Image Credit: by PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay

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