Max Perutz (1914-2002)

Max Perutz. Credit: Theresianische Akademie Wien.

Max Perutz. Credit: Theresianische Akademie Wien.

[Ed Note: We mark the centenary of Max Perutz’ birth today with the first in a series of posts on his life and his associations with Linus Pauling. Today’s post focuses on his life from 1914-1941.]

Max Ferdinand Perutz was born May 19, 1914 in Vienna, the third child and second son of Hugo and Adele Perutz.  His birth came little more than a month before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the subsequent start of World War I. Vienna was largely untouched by the war, but suffered mightily from the economic depression that followed. The Perutzes, who had accumulated a substantial fortune from family textile concerns, lost their savings to the rapid postwar inflation. Nonetheless, according to biographer Georgina Ferry, the family managed to maintain an income and “within a few years of the war’s end, they were living as well as before.”

In a 2001 interview with Katherine Thompson for the British Library, Perutz said that he remembered little of these early years. He did recall being a “very delicate child,” contracting pneumonia three times before he was six and a very serious fever at age nine. Fortunately, he was able to recover from the fever after his nanny took him to a resort in the Alps for the winter. After World War II, chest x-rays revealed that Perutz had suffered from tuberculosis, the likely cause of his fever.

Perutz’s physical delicacy affected his social life as well; he described himself as a “weakling at school” who had no friends early on since he was sick so often. Because of his condition, Perutz did not excel at most sports. But his many holidays in the Alps led him to develop a lifelong love of rock climbing and skiing. These skills eventually earned Perutz the respect of his peers after he won a prize for the school skiing team.

Perutz attended private primary schools until entering the newly organized Realgymnasium, which brought a shift in focus from classics to modern languages and the sciences. Perutz described his early years of schooling as “eight years of unbearable boredom.” This boredom began to wane as Perutz gravitated toward English literature, an interest enabled by his Anglophile father who saw that he was tutored in English in addition to the more common French. Perutz secretly read Charles Dickens and other British novelists under the bench while at school, later furthering this passion with his first girlfriend, who was from England. Perutz’s parents expected him to take over the family textile business once he was old enough, and were heartened by his developing intellectual prowess.

However, the business route never appealed to Perutz, especially after he was exposed to chemistry by an influential teachers, and at eighteen he began formal pursuit of his interest in chemistry at the University of Vienna. (Protests from his parents were soothed by the help of a friend of Perutz’s older brother, a chemist at Dow.) As with his primary schooling, Perutz was not very impressed by the education that he received at university. He described the curriculum’s lack of mathematical training and decidedly practical emphasis as “chemistry done by heart” because of the reading and memorizing he was forced to do in lieu of actual laboratory work. But ultimately he made it through and, in the process, cultivated a new attraction to physics which he would later fulfill as a graduate student in England.


Portrait of Perutz drawn by William Lawrence Bragg. Credit: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

Portrait of Perutz drawn by William Lawrence Bragg. Credit: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

From Vienna, Perutz moved on to Cambridge, where he hoped to work with Frederick Gowland Hopkins, the university’s first chair of biochemistry and recipient of the 1929 Nobel Prize in Physiology for his work on the relation between vitamins and growth. Since Perutz showed up without letting anyone know, he did not find out that he could not work with Hopkins until he actually arrived. Chastened, Perutz looked elsewhere and ended up in the Cavendish Laboratory of Physics doing x-ray crystallography. “Without knowing it,” Perutz later recalled, this “was one of the best things I could have done.”  Supported by £500 sent by his father, Perutz settled in and was able to take care of his own finances for the duration of his doctoral studies.  His health continued to suffer though – once in England, he began to experience frequent and painful digestive problems.

The first project that interested Perutz was identifying radioactive deposits dug out from the cliffs in Cornwall. Perutz measured the half-life of the material, but found that it did not correspond to any known elements. Excited that he may have discovered a new element, Perutz shared his findings with Cambridge luminaries Ernest Rutherford and J. D. Bernal, who helped him to determine that the substance was, in fact, radium. Bernal also encouraged Perutz to publish his findings and to present them at a Royal Society soiree. This led to his first publication, “The Iron-Rhodonite from Slag,” which appeared in Mineralogy Magazine in 1937.

At the end of his first year at Cambridge, Perutz spent his summer holiday back in Austria and thought about what he might do for his doctoral dissertation. Felix Haurowitz, then at Charles University in Prague, suggested focusing on hemoglobin, telling Perutz that he could get crystallized hemoglobin from Gilbert Smithson Adair at Cambridge. When he returned and acquired the hemoglobin, Perutz says he “immediately got a lovely x-ray diffraction picture,” which “thrilled” Bernal.

In the midst of his hemoglobin research, Perutz also agreed to assist a man who came to the Cavendish Laboratory looking for researchers to satisfy his own interest in glacier development. Perutz saw this as a perfect opportunity to spend more time skiing in the Alps. He published his work in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 1939, describing how melting and the movement of water contributed to glacier formation and flow.

In March 1940, Perutz wrapped up his Ph.D., which described the structure of hemoglobin and the x-ray methods used to develop the model. Yet the looming threat and subsequent reality of war overshadowed his findings and began to color components of his world that were much more important than his research.


Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.

As World War II approached, the Perutz family, still in Vienna, looked for ways to get out. The Perutzes were ethnic Jews, but Max’s parents were non-observant and Perutz himself had been baptized Catholic. As a young boy, Perutz was very devout, a character trait that he abandoned after his prayers that the Italians not invade Ethiopia were not answered. While his baptism was meant to protect him from anti-Semitism, he claimed that his family “very rarely” experienced discrimination before the Anschluss. Once the Nazis assumed power, the Perutz family quickly left with Max’s brother and sister going to the United States and his parents coming to stay in Cambridge. Hugo and Adele Perutz, used to supporting themselves, lost their businesses and spent all their money leaving Vienna – according to their son, they “were traumatized by suddenly being poor.”

To get them to England, Max both had to prove that he could support them and was also required to pay a thousand pounds, compelling him to sell some of his mother’s jewelry and to borrow funds to cover the rest. Around this time, William Lawrence Bragg, winner of the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics, came to the Cavendish. Bragg was very excited about Perutz’s work with hemoglobin and helped him to secure a grant with the Rockefeller Foundation in New York. The grant provided £275 per year, enough for Perutz to prove that he could support his parents. But soon the family would come into even more trouble.

In May 1940, just two months after he finished his Ph.D., Perutz was interned by the British government. He was first taken and held in a school at Bury St. Edmunds, east of Cambridge, for one week before being transported to Liverpool. By July, Perutz, along with roughly twelve-hundred others, was shipped across the Atlantic to a camp near Quebec City, Canada, where the residents’ status was upgraded from “internee” to “civilian prisoner of war,” a change that promised access to clothing and army rations. In a 1985 essay for the New Yorker, titled “Enemy Alien,” Perutz wrote,

To have been arrested, interned, and deported as an enemy alien by the English, whom I had regarded as my friends, made me more bitter than to have lost freedom itself. Having first been rejected as a Jew by my native Austria, which I loved, I now found myself rejected as a German by my adopted country.

Perutz’s friends were working on his behalf to have him released, unknown to him since he could receive no communications.

Meanwhile, in Quebec, Perutz tried to make the best of things and organized a “camp university.” Hermann Bondi, a mathematician also from Vienna, taught on vector analysis, while Klaus Fuchs, a student at Bristol who fled Hitler’s persecution for being a communist, taught theoretical physics. For his part, Perutz drew on past research of his own, explaining the atomic structure of crystals to all who might be interested.

The Rockefeller Foundation did not forget about Perutz and arranged a professorship for him at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Hearing rumors that his father had also been interned and worried that he would not be able to obtain a visa to travel once he had been established in the United States, Perutz was eager to go back to England to check on his parents. After several delays and transfers, Perutz arrived back in Cambridge in January 1941, finding his father already released and his friends happy to see him.

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