John Kendrew (1917-1997)

Kendrew, John

John Kendrew building a model of myoglobin. Credit: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

[Ed Note: Today we remember Sir John Kendrew, who would have turned one-hundred years old on March 24th.]

The Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University was an exciting place to be in the 1950s. While James Watson and Francis Crick worked themselves into a frenzy in their race with Linus Pauling to discover the structure of DNA, lab-mate John Kendrew worked quietly alongside another future Nobel laureate, Max Perutz, as they too competed with Pauling in another arena: the molecular structure of various proteins.

For Kendrew however, this pursuit was not considered to be a competition against Pauling. Rather, he felt his corner of the laboratory to be working in tandem with researchers at Caltech in their joint pursuit of a common goal. For Kendrew, whoever got there first was beside the point. Indeed, when Perutz and Kendrew received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry – one year prior to Pauling’s receipt of his Peace Nobel – Kendrew credited Pauling as having been a source of inspiration and direction for his work on the atomic structure of myoglobin.


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John Kendrew and Max Perutz, 1962.

Sixteen years Pauling’s junior, John Cowdery Kendrew was born in Oxford, England on March 24, 1917. He received an appointment for study at Cambridge in 1939 and was working on reaction kinetics before the outbreak of World War II called him away to support the Allied effort.

By the time that he had reached the rank of Wing Commander in the Air Ministry Research Establishment, Kendrew had developed relationships with several important scientific contacts. Perhaps chief among these colleagues was the crystallographer J.D. Bernal, who also influenced Pauling’s protein work in the late 1930s. Bernal encouraged Kendrew to contact Max Perutz at the Cavendish Laboratory once his military service was completed. After receiving similar advice from Pauling, Kendrew began working with Perutz in 1945. His early research at the lab was conducted in support of his Ph. D. thesis – an x-ray diffraction study of hemoglobin in fetal and adult sheep.

In the late 1940s, Kendrew and Perutz established the Cavendish MRC Unit for the Study of the Molecular Structure of Biological Systems, and together they attacked the chemical structure of proteins using X-ray crystallography, with a particular interest in whale myoglobin. Although the research excited Kendrew, he was sometimes perplexed by the cross-disciplinary nature of what he was trying to accomplish. In a later interview with the Journal of Chemical Education, he remembered, “one of the problems was the lack of professional label. By profession, I was a chemist working on a biological problem in a physics lab.”

Nonetheless, Kendrew and Perutz were avidly pursuing the structure of keratin when the Pauling family visited the Cavendish in 1948. Pauling himself had done some preliminary work on the protein about ten years earlier, but after failing to build a satisfactory chain, he had abandoned the effort and moved on to other structures. Seeing the steady progress that Kendrew and Perutz were making reignited his own interest in the structure. Not long after, while lying in bed with a severe sinus infection, he worked on a rough sketch of a keratin model, which eventually inspired his signature proteins breakthrough: the alpha-helix.

Shortly after Pauling published his landmark 1951 paper, “The Structure of Proteins: Two Hydrogen-Bonded Helical Configurations of the Polypeptide Chain,” in which he introduced the alpha and gamma helixes, Pauling invited Kendrew to visit Pasadena and lecture at Caltech. Kendrew, impressed and eager to discuss Pauling’s findings, made preparations to stop in southern California as part of an already scheduled trip to San Francisco and Seattle. The visit proved thought-provoking for both scientists, and Kendrew returned to the Cavendish brimming with fresh ideas.


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Peter Pauling, 1954.

In their early exchange of correspondence, Pauling’s communications (as was typical) were usually formal and brief. On the contrary, Kendrew’s enthusiasm about both his and Pauling’s work is spelled out in long, detailed paragraphs. In due time, Pauling’s writing broadened not only in length, but in a personal dimension as well.  Importantly, between a letter dated October 8, 1956 and another written on November 22, 1957, Pauling switched from referring to his correspondent as “Dr. Kendrew” to “John,” and Kendrew responded in kind.

Without doubt, one catalyst for this shift was Kendrew’s mentorship and guidance of Linus’ second-oldest son, Peter Pauling, a budding crystallographer who was pursuing his doctorate at the Cavendish. Despite his promise and pedigree, once Peter had settled in, many scientists at Cambridge had begun to express concern about his level of commitment to and interest in his work.

Amidst a flurry of letters from Peter’s Cambridge professors that ranged from outright condemnation of his behavior to genuine concern for his future, a 1953 letter from Kendrew comes across as amiable but firm. In it, he expresses serious doubts about Peter’s ability to attain a Ph.D. unless he undergoes “a considerable revolution during the summer.” The message also urges the elder Pauling to alter other travel plans and come to England to address the matter in person. Ultimately, Pauling declined to do so and, fortunately, Peter initiated the revolution for which Kendrew had expressed hope. A year later, Kendrew penned another letter in which he assured Pauling that he had observed in Peter’s work both a genuine interest and a more stringent ethic.

Kendrew was not merely a fair-weather supporter of Peter’s endeavors. When Peter ran into serious personal trouble at Cambridge in 1955, Kendrew proved invaluably resourceful. Most notably, he helped Peter transfer his fellowship and remaining doctoral research to the Royal Institution of London, where former Cavendish chief Sir Lawrence Bragg was now directing the Davy-Faraday research lab.  Kendrew and Bragg later assisted Peter in moving yet again – this time to University College, London – when he could not complete his dissertation in the requisite amount of time allotted by the Royal Institution.

In a number of letters, Pauling repeatedly expressed his gratitude to Kendrew for so carefully tending to Peter’s well-being and educational progress, choppy though it was. These circumstances only served to cement a friendship between the two; one that developed alongside the great professional respect with which they had always extended to one another.


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Kendrew posing at a proteins conference held at Caltech, 1953.

On the other hand, Caltech and the Cavendish regularly found themselves to be in professional competition with one other, and this did lead to occasional friction between friends. In one instance, Kendrew sought out Pauling’s assistance with a rather complicated labor shortage that had partly been caused by Pauling himself. Shortly after Peter’s departure from Cambridge and Bragg’s resignation from his leadership post in the Cavendish, Kendrew wrote to Pasadena, asking for assistance. The gravity of the moment was especially amplified for Kendrew, who was presumably a tad annoyed by Pauling’s having convinced a mutual colleague, Howard Dintzis, to leave the Cavendish for Caltech the previous year. In his letter, Kendrew made a request:

I am writing to ask whether you would be good enough to let me know if you hear of any good man who would like to come to work on the myoglobin project in the near future. As you may have heard from Howard Dintzis, owing to a continuation of unforeseen circumstances I shall be totally without collaborators from January onward.

Pauling replied kindly, but did not include any recommendations.


In 1957, Kendrew succeeded in delineating the atomic structure of myoglobin. Two years later, Max Perutz successfully mapped the structure of hemoglobin. When Lawrence Bragg approached Pauling with the idea of nominating Kendrew for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Pauling suggested that the award be split three ways between Kendrew, Perutz, and Robert Corey, a colleague of Pauling’s at Caltech. Bragg disagreed and instead nominated the British chemist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, a pioneer in X-ray crystallography. Ultimately, Pauling’s final nomination of Kendrew and Perutz in 1962 included Hodgkin as well. As it turned out, Kendrew and Perutz split that year’s prize, and Hodgkin took the 1964 award for herself.


The remainder of Kendrew’s career was spent working less directly on scientific research and more intently on public policy. Like Pauling, Kendrew believed that scientists bore an obligation beyond scientific research and discovery. As he expressed in a 1974 interview

[Scientists] have special knowledge, and their most important responsibility is communication; because it is bad enough to try and foresee the effects of some scientific or technological advance given all the facts, but without them it is impossible…it is all the more important for scientists to communicate and make what they are doing understood at the government level and publicly through the media.

Jojn Kendrew Award gallery, EMBL ATC 11.2016

Wall of Honor at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.

In the same year that he gave that interview, Kendrew helped to establish the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, where he acted as director until his retirement in 1981. The lab has since created the John Kendrew Award to recognize and honor outstanding contributions made by the laboratory’s alumni.

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