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Max F. Perutz: Life, Legacy and Breathing Molecule

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   Max F. Perutz: Life, Legacy and Breathing Molecule 


Max Ferdinand Perutz is probably the most eminent name in Molecular Biology often referred to as “Godfather of Molecular Biology” or “Founding Father of Molecular Biology”. Max was beyond just a great scientist; he was an honorably gracious man with brilliant humane instincts. Max won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with former student and fellow colleague John Kendrew for understanding the breathing molecule - Hemoglobin that makes the blood red. By determining the three dimensional structure of hemoglobin, he solved the most intricate mystery of biology. Max unraveled the secrets of life and founded the world-renowned MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) at Cambridge. Max’s life marked the remarkable era of scientific enlightenment, resilience and his modest leadership; he himself scaled great scientific heights and foster even greater achievement for others. In this paper, I will briefly touch upon the history and legacy of Max Perutz’s personal and professional life emphasizing his distinct contribution in determining molecular structure of Hemoglobin. 

Max Ferdinand Perutz would request young scientists and colleagues throughout his life, “Please call me Max” when addressed formally. To honor his humbleness, we will too address him as “Max” throughout the paper.

Childhood and Early Life 

Max was born on May 19th, 1914 in Vienna, Austria. Max’s mother Adele “Dely” Goldschmidt and father Hugo Perutz came from eminent Viennese family of successful textile industrialists. Perutz family had significant business stake in textile manufacturing as they

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Max spent his childhood in Vienna in an elegant building adjacent to British Embassy. But, his childhood was not all glory; Max suffered a severe bout of pneumonia when he was just few months old. He suffered two more such spells before the age of five. Max was often wrapped in moist and cold sheets to bring down the fever. At the age of nine, Max suffered another horrifying illness outbreak. However, with the advice from their family doctor, Max was sent to Semmering, a resort situated on the picturesque mountain pass where Max

Image 1: Max F. Perutz 

(nobelprize.org, 1962) stayed for few weeks. The fresh air from mountain at one-thousand-meter altitude seemed to do the trick as he returned healthier and sturdier.

Hugo and Dely loved max the most, but they were mostly busy and distracted. Max spent most of his time in Vienna with nanny Cilly Jetztfellner. Due to these factors, Max’s intellectual development slowed down and his stimulation was stalled to some extent. Max was often victim of dissimilar choices of his own and mother’s. Dely tried to indulge Max in piano lessons, which he gave up soon. She tried to involve him in Theatrical education, which also he did not continue. Interestingly, a private tuition arranged by mother to learn French and English language allured Max’s interest to some extent. With the continual encouragement and understanding from teacher Miss Rein, Max developed interest in English language.

Max was not so close with his elder brother Franz, who went Switzerland to study when Max was nine. But, he shared a great bond with elder sister Lotte who remained his confidante and best friend for the rest of their lives. Apart from a comfortable and graceful life in Vienna, Max pooled even greater memories from summers spent at Villa Perutz in Reichenau. Max loved the house as it allowed him to spend more time with his mother. Max also cherished the company of his ‘suitable friend’, Evelyn Baxter. Evelyn was the niece of near neighbor and used to stay at Uncle’s because of tension at home. Evelyn spent most of her time in Perutz Villa and enjoyed the genial company of Max. Though Max returned to resume his schools, they were destined to meet in future years.

Franz and Lotte were enthusiastic skiers and due to slightly delicate health conditions, Max joined them at the age of eleven. Although Max begun at ease, his zeal to keep up with rather athletic and elder siblings, made him a strong and competitive racer. Max was 15, and met Evelyn again almost after five years of their first meeting. Evelyn was another genius and intended for Oxford, she made her last visit to Vienna in 1932. Ever since then, Max and

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Early Education in Vienna 

Due to frail health conditions and partly because of abstracted participation of his parents, Max’s early education was inconsistent and lacked stimulation. At the age of six, Max attended a small private school. As he grew little older, he took piano lessons and theatrical education which he gave up due to disinterest. Later, he continued with his private teacher Miss Rein to learn English language. Though she could never develop his English accent, but she inspired him to love the language and literature. Soon, he became an avid reader of

Image 2: Max at the age of two with 

nanny Cilly (mfpl.ac.at, n.d.) English books. No wonder! because of his ardent interest, he was respected as a compelling author in the later years of his life.

At the age of ten, Max was enrolled at Grammar School, Theresianum in Vienna. The school was derived from the military academy during the reign of the empress Maria Theresa. The school curriculum did not suite Max. He found subjects extremely uninteresting and exams were no more than an inconsequential quiz for him. His triviality with the education were quite evident on his mark sheet. Max was brilliant but he wanted to study on his own terms. Only thing he liked was skating parties after schools during winter. He studied there for eight years.

Envisaging these circumstantial archives, it is an obvious question that how, in such unintellectual atmosphere, did Max conceived his love for chemistry? Well, surprisingly the answer lies somewhat into his unexciting early education itself. Max was sixteen when Chemistry classes were introduced to the curriculum. It was Dr. Arthur Praetorius, school Chemistry teacher who paved Max’s interest in Chemistry. Max once narrated how his teacher used to organize Chemistry experiment practical classes and how the reacting chemical and changing colors allured him to choose Chemistry for his degree. The stimulus to study the area of his interest, motivated Max to perform well and attain a commendable result in school leaving exam.



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