Architects of Structural Biology: Bragg, Perutz, and Kendrew

Lunchtime Lectures
Monday, April 29, 2019
12:00 p.m.–1:00 p.m.
Science History Institute
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

Join us for a special Lunchtime Lecture by Sir John Meurig Thomas, Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, University of Cambridge.

When Max Perutz and John Kendrew, principal founders of molecular biology, set about in the late 1940s to solve the structures of hemoglobin and myoglobin, many scientists, notably the eminent developmental biologist and philosopher Conrad Waddington, ridiculed the name “molecular biology.” Others accused Perutz, Kendrew, and their team, which included Francis Crick and James Watson, of practicing biochemistry without license. Yet the revolution that they, with 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 centers ever. Twenty-three Nobel laureates (11 of them from the United States) have worked there, and numerous medicines used worldwide 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 three protagonists—two 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), Dorothy Hodgkin, Francis Crick, Aaron Klug, and David Phillips, who solved the first structure of an enzyme at the Royal Institution. It was there, and later in the Departments of Mineralogy and Textile Physics, that Bernal and William Astbury first investigated the structures of “living molecules.” The rivalry between the Cambridge trio and the brilliant, effulgent U.S. scientist Linus Pauling will also be discussed.

Sir John Meurig Thomas

Sir John Meurig Thomas

Sir John Meurig Thomas.

Conrad Erb

About the Speaker

Sir John Meurig Thomas, a personal friend of Perutz, Kendrew, Klug, and Phillips, was formerly the director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, former head of the Department of Physical Chemistry, and former master of Peterhouse, University of Cambridge. He is a solid-state, surface, and materials chemist and recipient of several awards, including the Willard-Gibbs, Pauling, Kapitza, Natta, Stokes, Davy, and Faraday medals. A new mineral, meurigite, is named after him. He was awarded the Royal Medal for Physical Sciences by the Royal Society in 2016.

About the Series

Lunchtime Lectures are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.