Max Perutz used to say that he was famous, but that few people knew what it was he was famous for. His name may not resonate with household familiarity, but he was a Nobel laureate for his work on the structure of hemoglobin and was enormously influential in organizing other scientists working in what was then a new field of molecular biology. He died in 2002, working up until his last days, and although he was an accomplished writer, he didn't get around to writing an autobiography because he consciously decided that his time was best spent researching instead. Now there is a fine biography that will help readers appreciate what he was famous for, _Max Perutz and the Secret of Life_ (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press) by Georgina Ferry. Ferry is one of our best science writers, and this admiring but unfawning biography not only tells the story of its protagonist, but also illustrates how science gets done as a cooperative and competitive enterprise.
When he was 22 in 1936, Perutz and his family left his native Austria, but in Cambridge during the war he was arrested and shipped with Nazis to Canada merely because of his national origin. His work resumed upon his release and oath of allegiance to the King. It was ever after would based on x-ray crystallography, a field drawing from mathematics, chemistry, biology, and physics. The crystals Perutz used were not geologic samples, but crystallized versions of proteins, and he latched on to hemoglobin because it really was involved in the secrets of life; it was known that it carried oxygen throughout the body (he called it the "molecular lung"), but no one knew how it did so. Over decades of research he showed not only the structure, but how it flexed and turned in order to take on oxygen or give it off. Perutz was not the sort of brilliant scientist who had flashes of eureka moments. He got to his lab and worked hard until answers came. His answers were often wrong, shot down by others, and it is perhaps because he understood the nature of scientific research as a group endeavor that Perutz was brilliant in organizing others. He established the research unit in which Watson and Crick found DNA's structure, and as chairman of the Laboratory for Molecular Biology, he fostered an environment that on its own has produced more Nobel prizes than many developed countries.
Perutz had more than his share of foibles. He had a passion for climbing mountains and skiing that could eclipse his interest in research or even in his family. Nonetheless, he was sickly most of his life, and had a peculiar diet that required him to eat bananas that had ripened to black. He had a naïve belief that scientific reasoning would overcome the flaws within politics and religion. His life as Ferry tells it, however, is full of wonderful lessons, like the one that a good brain is a boon, but hard work and perseverance are what make success. Another one is that scientific researchers work best in a chaotic environment with only partial controls upon it. Another one is that the best way to understand any physical object is to understand its internal structure. And finally, a maxim that was one of Perutz's favorites, "In science, truth always wins." Perutz left a legacy of his own research, and more importantly of effective organization of scientific teams, that will continue to foster the scientific victories he knew were coming.