Launch the Icebergs!

Tim Lewens

  • Max Perutz and the Secret of Life by Georgina Ferry
    Chatto, 352 pp, £25.00, July 2007, ISBN 978 0 7011 7695 2

Who was Max Perutz? There are plenty of good answers. He was an X-ray crystallographer, someone who uses X-rays as a tool to discover the three-dimensional structure of molecules. He was an accomplished skier and climber, with a sideline research interest in glaciology. He was a scientific manager, who founded and presided over Cambridge’s spectacularly successful Laboratory of Molecular Biology. He was a science communicator, who contributed to the pages of the LRB. He was a Nobel laureate, and a recipient of the Order of Merit, among other accolades. All these things were enough for many to call him famous. Perutz, who died in 2002, was convinced enough of his own standing to ask Georgina Ferry to write his biography. But he also realised that few people knew what he was famous for.

In spite of her book’s title, reminiscent of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Ferry never suggests that Perutz was famous for discovering the secret of life. So what was his involvement in the discovery? What, for that matter, is the secret of life? Ferry keeps to the conventional meaning of the phrase, encouraged by Francis Crick’s announcement in the Eagle pub in Cambridge in 1953, and since then widely adopted among popular science writers. To learn the secret of life is not to discover how organisms become adapted to their surroundings, how blood is circulated, or any of nature’s other more minor confidences uncovered by the likes of Darwin or William Harvey. To learn the secret of life is to figure out that DNA has a double-helical structure. And while Perutz did not make that discovery, he did run the Cambridge research unit in which the most notorious episodes of the double-helix story took place – the episodes that involved Crick and James Watson.

Perutz’s role appears rather shady in Ferry’s account. As is fairly well known, Watson and Crick made use of unpublished data, from Rosalind Franklin’s rival group at King’s College London, in coming to their conclusions about the shape of DNA. Perutz was the conduit for some of those data. A member of the Medical Research Council biophysics committee, he had received it as part of an MRC review of Franklin’s laboratory. When Crick asked to see the data, Perutz saw no problem in passing him the file, on the grounds that the papers hadn’t been marked ‘confidential’. Some of Perutz’s peers would later suggest his action was nonetheless a ‘breach of faith’. Perutz also knew that Maurice Wilkins, who worked alongside Franklin at King’s, had shown Watson a new X-ray photograph of DNA that Franklin had taken. Perutz understood how important this photograph had been in Watson’s reasoning about the structure of DNA. When Watson and Crick produced their double-helix model a few weeks later, Perutz wrote to the secretary of the MRC, Harold Himsworth, telling him of the result:

They used … a certain amount of unpublished X-ray data which they had seen or heard about at King’s. All these X-ray data were either poor, or referred to a different form of structure, and while they indicated certain general features of the structure of DNA they did not give a detailed guide to its character. While Watson and Crick were building their structure here, Miss Franklin and Gosling at King’s obtained a new and very detailed picture of DNA. Watson and Crick only heard of this photograph when they sent the first draft of their paper to King’s, but it now appears that this new photograph confirms the important features of their structure.

Perutz’s letter contains claims about Watson and Crick’s access to the King’s group’s work, and about its importance in their reasoning, that he must have known to be false. Thanks to historians of the DNA affair we now understand the significance of Franklin’s work much better.

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