This Day in Jewish History / Death of a Nobel Chemist

Max Perutz, hooked on science, broke free from his textile manufacturing destiny because 'mankind would suffer an incalculable loss if I failed to win the Nobel Prize.'

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

On February 6, 2002, chemist Max Perutz died, at age 87. Perutz shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Chemistry with his colleague John Kendrew for their study of the structure of hemoglobin, the protein component of red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to body tissues and then transports carbon dioxide from the tissues back to the lungs.

Perutz was born May 19, 1914, in Vienna, into a Jewish family of textile manufacturers (on both sides) that had converted to Roman Catholicism. It was hoped in his family that he would study law and enter the family business, but a brief exposure to chemistry was enough to convince him to take a different course.

At the time he wrote to an English girlfriend (who saved his letters and returned them to him toward the end of his life): “I'm turning over and over in my mind how I could get out of becoming a textile manufacturer in a Czech village and having to give up chemistry. Surely mankind would suffer an incalculable loss if I failed to win the Nobel Prize.”

Once Perutz figured that out, he began his chemistry studies at the University of Vienna, but soon moved to Cambridge, England, in 1936 to do work in biochemistry at the Cavendish Laboratory. There he studied under J.D. Bernal, who told Perutz that the secret of life could be found in the understanding of proteins, and that crystallography offered the way to discover their structure. For the next two decades, Perutz used X-ray crystallography to study hemoglobin.

After the Nazis came to power in Austria, Perutz was joined by his parents, whose family business had been expropriated, in the U.K. In 1940, both he and his father, along with another 7,000 Austrian and Germans in the country, were rounded up as “enemy aliens,” and sent to internment camps in Canada. As he told an interviewer later in life, “I was desperately unhappy. Having been rejected by my own country as a Jew, I now found myself rejected in my adopted country as an enemy.”

After a year, and after his talents became known to the Allies, he was offered positions both in the U.S. and back in Cambridge; he chose the latter. He was soon recruited for the top-secret Operation Habakkuk, which aimed to create a sturdy compound of ice and wood pulp that could be used for an artificial platform in the mid-Atlantic for refueling airplanes.

The team did their research in a secret lab set up underneath the Smithfield Meat Market, in the City of London. The result of their work was a compound they called Pykrete, named for Geoffrey Pyke, the eccentric inventor who recruited the team. However, by the time it was developed, the platform was no longer unnecessary because long-range airplanes began crossing the ocean without needing to refuel.

Perutz was chosen in 1947 to head a new branch of the Medical Research Council at Cambridge – which became the Unit for Molecular Biology – and it is there that he and Kendrew developed the methods of X-ray crystallography that allowed them to study protein structures and won them the Nobel Prize. They first analyzed the structure of hemoglobin, and then discovered the process by which this essential protein is able to attach to and release oxygen and carbon dioxide as needed. Perutz’s ongoing work on hemoglobin led to understanding such blood disorders as thalassemia and sickle-cell anemia.

Perutz was a skilled promoter of science, wring a number of books and articles for lay people, and he was known for his gentle character and sense of fun. He married Gisela Peiser in 1942, and the two remained together until the end of his life (Gisela died in 2005). They had two children, a daughter who became an art historian, and a son who is a chemist at York University.

Max Perutz dancing with his wife in 1962.Credit: wikipedia