Book Review: The Secret of Max Perutz's Life

Max Perutz

A portrait of Max Perutz, drawn by Nobel laureate William Lawrence Bragg (MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology).

Georgina Ferry. Max Perutz and the Secret of Life. Woodbury, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, ix + 368 pp, $39.

Subjectivity. It has no place in the popular image of science, yet its role is keenly felt by scientists and the historians and humanists who study them. The importance of the personal in an age of bureaucracy, of the foibles and the virtues of individuals in an era of organized research, is a major theme in the histories of the modern sciences. As told by science writer and journalist Georgina Ferry, the life of crystallographer and molecular biologist Max Perutz is a wonderful example of just how important the personal and the subjective can be. Max Perutz and the Secret of Life is like the autobiography its subject never wrote, tempered with Ferry’s perceptive interpretation of Perutz’s personality and psychology and reinforced by her experience as a chronicler of the stories of molecular biology.

“In science, truth always wins.”  This was a favorite aphorism of Max Perutz. Ferry invokes it to good effect as an example of Perutz’s endearing combination of optimism and naïveté. Both qualities served Perutz well—from his entry into science as a youth in Austria, to his tragicomic experiences of World War II, to his celebrated work on the structure of hemoglobin, to his leadership of the famous Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge University.

Perutz was turned on to science by a chemistry teacher whose colorful classroom experiments always worked—and made “lovely colours.” He chose to pursue chemistry, though it was an impractical career choice for the son of a well-connected Vienna business family. By 1936, when he was ready to begin research for his doctorate, Perutz left Austria, citing the politics of the lab, the regimented lives and limited intellectual horizons of the organic chemistry graduate students he knew, rather than the more troubling conventional politics of the day—the rising tide of Nazism—as his motivation for this relocation. He was recruited into crystallography almost by happenstance: the charismatic Cambridge physicist (and communist, not that Perutz cared) J. D. Bernal needed a graduate student who could pay his own way.