Pauling and Perutz in the Golden Age of Protein Research

Max Perutz, 1987. Image Credit: Graham Wood.

Max Perutz, 1987. Image Credit: Graham Wood.

[Part 3 of our series celebrating the Perutz centenary.]

In 1939 Max Perutz’s girlfriend gave him a book token for Christmas. Working on finishing his dissertation on the structure of hemoglobin, Perutz used that token to purchase Linus Pauling’s recently published text, The Nature of the Chemical Bond.

In the obituary of Pauling that he wrote some fifty-five years later, Perutz described how the “book transformed the chemical flatland of my earlier textbooks into a world of three-dimensional structures” and “fortified my belief, already inspired by J. D. Bernal, that knowledge of three-dimensional structure is all-important and that the functions of living cells will never be understood without knowing the structures of the large molecules composing them.”  The purchase of Pauling’s book marked the beginning of a long, fruitful and sometimes contentious correspondence between the two men, working on separate continents but united by similar interests.

Not until 1946 did Perutz first write to Pauling, asking for assistance as he labored through his research on the structure of hemoglobin. The Cavendish Laboratory, where Perutz was located, did not have the latest equipment that was available to Pauling at Caltech. In particular, Perutz needed a Hollerith punch-card machine to carry out calculations of the three-dimensional Patterson-Fourier synthesis. Perutz knew that Pauling’s lab was already conducting calculations of this sort and that the work Perutz was doing “would have to be done sooner or later, if the molecular structure of the proteins is to be worked out.”

As such, Perutz hoped that someone in Pauling’s lab might do the calculations for him. Pauling was not moved enough by Perutz’s request to offer the labor of his own team, replying that enlisting someone do such work in a “routine way” could lead to confusion. Pauling did offer that Perutz come to Pasadena, or send a surrogate to do the work, if he could find the money. Perutz was unable to support such an undertaking and so ended that conversation.

Linus Pauling and Lord Alexander R. Todd. Cambridge, England. 1948.

Two years later, in 1948, Pauling was in England, enjoying a stint as George Eastman Professor at Oxford. It was during this time that he and Perutz met for the first time in person. Perutz described his first experiences of Pauling’s lectures, in which

he would reel off the top of his head atomic radii, interatomic distances and bond energies with the gusto of an organist playing a Bach fugue; afterwards he would look around for applause, as I had seen Bertrand Russell do after quoting one of his eloquent metaphors.

The two also found time to talk together about their own particular research projects.

Pauling’s work at Oxford touched directly on Perutz’s own program, in what would become a oft-noted story in twentieth century history of science. As Pauling lay in bed with a cold, he did not stop working, choosing to spend his time making planar peptide models with paper chains. From his paper folding exercises, Pauling, according to Perutz’s obituary, “found a satisfactory structure by folding them into a helix with 3.6 residues per turn.” (A story that Pauling relayed many times himself.) The structure would come to be known as the alpha helix.

After Pauling recovered from his illness, Perutz showed him his own model of a polypeptide chain which was part of his larger hemoglobin model and was similar to fibers described by William Astbury. To Perutz’s “disappointment, Pauling made no comment,” and gave no hint as to his own breakthrough, which he announced the next year in a “dramatic lecture.”  That later unveiling of the alpha helix gave rise to a famous Perutz anecdote, which later informed the title of a book of essays that Perutz published.

When I saw the alpha-helix and saw what a beautiful, elegant structure it was, I was thunderstruck and was furious with myself for not having built this, but on the other hand, I wondered, was it really right?

So I cycled home for lunch and was so preoccupied with the turmoil in my mind that I didn’t respond to anything. Then I had an idea, so I cycled back to the lab. I realized that I had a horse hair in a drawer. I set it up on the X-ray camera and gave it a two hour exposure, then took the film to the dark room with my heart in my mouth, wondering what it showed, and when I developed it, there was the 1.5 angstrom reflection which I had predicted and which excluded all structures other than the alpha-helix.

So on Monday morning I stormed into my professor’s office, into [William Lawrence] Bragg’s office and showed him this, and Bragg said, ‘Whatever made you think of that?’ And I said, ‘Because I was so furious with myself for having missed that beautiful structure.’ To which Bragg replied coldly, ‘I wish I had made you angry earlier.’


Once Pauling returned to Pasadena, he and Perutz fell into a minor quarrel. In December 1950, Perutz had heard that Pauling had been “annoyed” by Perutz and John Murdoch Mitchison’s paper, “State of Hæmoglobin in Sickle-Cell Anæmia,” which had been published in Nature that October. Pauling was upset that Perutz and Mitchison had suggested that crystallization caused cells to sickle without properly citing his own seminal work on the subject.

In a December letter, Perutz said he was “very disappointed” that Pauling was upset with the publication, not only because there was a reference to Pauling, et al. in its introductory paragraph, but “particularly because all the new experimental evidence we report seemed to fit in so beautifully with the basic ideas set out in” Pauling’s co-authored Science article, “Sickle Cell Anemia, a Molecular Disease,” published in November 1949. Perutz explained his position in more detail, noting,

There is perhaps a slight difference between our points of view. Whereas you regard the sickling as being due to an aggregation and partial alignment of hæmoglobin molecules by a lock and key mechanism, an interlocking of specific groups in neighbouring molecules, we regard the cause of the sickling as being simply a crystallization, due to abnormally low solubility of the reduced hæmoglobin. No specific interaction of the kind you mention need be involved in the second process, though it obviously may be…I am sorry that this misunderstanding between us should have arisen, particularly as I have spent much effort trying to convert unbelievers to your scheme.

Pauling waited until the following February to respond and explained his feeling that readers of Perutz’s article might conclude that Perutz was making an original proposal. Having made this statement, Pauling, in his own way, moved beyond the quarrel by telling Perutz about his more recent work showing that “hemoglobin is not crystallized in the sickle cells, but is only converted to the nematic [or liquid crystal] state.” The ice broken, Perutz quickly responded by inviting Pauling to take part in informal discussions about protein structure at the Cavendish Laboratory before an annual conference, to be held in Stockholm. Pauling, however, could not attend.

The next year, Pauling attempted to visit England, this time to speak at a conference about the alpha helix, but was delayed due to his passport renewal being denied on account of his political activities. Perutz wrote that Pauling’s “absence had a sadly damping effect on our meeting at the Royal Society, and it made the discussion rather one sided as there was no none to answer the various objections to the α-helix raised by the Astburites and Courtlauld people” since Pauling’s supporters were unprepared to defend Pauling’s position without him. Perutz was also keen to show Pauling his own progress, an eagerness that Pauling reciprocated. By July Pauling had cleared up his passport problems and was able to spend time in person discussing his and Perutz’s work.

By 1953 Perutz and Pauling were quarrelling again over proper citation, though this time it was Perutz suggesting that Pauling had not given Francis Crick enough credit regarding the coiling of alpha helixes. Pauling explained to Perutz that, while he was at Cambridge the previous summer, he had talked with Crick and John Kendrew at length. During that conversation, according to Pauling,

There was only brief discussion of α keratin at this time, and, if my memory is correct, only a few sentences were said about the coiled coil, as Crick calls it. We discussed the fact that the 5.15-Å meridional reflection offers some difficulties of explanations, and that also there seemed to be a discrepancy in the density of α keratin. The discussion was very brief. Then Mr. Crick asked me if I had ever thought of the possibility that the α helixes were twisted about one another. I answered that I had. So far as I can remember, nothing more was said on this point.

Pauling went on to emphasize that “the idea was not a new one to me then” and that his own description of it in Nature was different from Crick’s understanding. Perutz ceded this point, adding that Pauling’s differences with Crick “stimulated Crick to clarify his own” ideas on the coiling of alpha helixes. More generally, Perutz found that the competition that arose between the two labs as they worked on similar problems helped to push each forward, thus leading to positive advances.

The famous group photo of the Pasadena Conference on the Structure of Proteins, September 1953. Pauling stands front row, third from left. Perutz stands two rows behind Pauling. [Image credit: The Archives, California Institute of Technology]

That September, Perutz made his first visit to California in order to deliver a paper at the Pasadena Conference on the Structure of Proteins, at which were gathered all of the world’s major figures in the field, including Jim Watson and Francis Crick, newly famous for their double helical structure of DNA. Perutz told his wife, Gisela, that his paper was “well received.” Additionally, with all of the different perspectives presented, there was “an atmosphere of soberness, and a realization that no-one’s solution of the protein problem was complete, and every approach was still fraught with complications.” Perutz was also quite taken with the Paulings’ home and their hospitality, pointing out that Ava Helen had invited him “after one of the meetings for a swim in their garden.”

Correspondence between Perutz and Pauling dipped a bit after the conference, though Pauling did take a moment to congratulate Perutz on being elected to the Royal Society the following Spring. While the exchange was brief, it reflected the long relationship built up between the two over the preceding years and, in particular, a confluence of work that had boosted the esteem of both scientists.

Perutz had begun looking at the structure of wool proteins back in 1951, thinking that there might be similarities to hemoglobin. He became excited after finding Pauling’s work on alpha helixes in fibers, thinking that the structure might be present in wool as well. His initial studies resulted in disappointment, but after adjusting the angle at which he was taking his x-rays by 30 degrees, he compiled new data that confirmed Pauling’s alpha helix structure. After applying it to his own work on hemoglobin, Perutz told Pauling “the discovery of this reflexion in haemoglobin has been the most thrilling discovery of my life…there is no doubt that it is a universal feature at least of all fibers of the α type. Whether all crystalline proteins show it remains to be seen.” Not suprisingly, Pauling was also “very pleased” with this discovery.

This research opened the door for Perutz to be considered by the Royal Society. But it was his development of a technique for determining a three-dimensional view of structures derived from x-ray crystallography that assured his election. He did this be attaching mercury atoms to hemoglobin, which allowed him to figure out where the crest and trough of a given x-ray was in relation to the structure that appeared on the photos. Perutz later said that after he finished the work and published it in Nature at the end of 1959, he went skiing in the Alps, and by the time he returned he was famous, assuring his fellowship in the Royal Society.


Caltech, Cambridge and Coiled-Coils

Coiled-coil illustration from Pauling and Corey's Nature publication of January 10, 1953.

Coiled-coil illustration from Pauling and Corey’s Nature publication of January 10, 1953.

Within the overarching saga of the race for DNA between Linus Pauling’s Caltech lab and Sir William Lawrence Bragg‘s Cambridge lab, the Cavendish, there existed a small yet interesting story of controversy and intrigue: the case of the coiled-coils.

In August 1952, Linus Pauling visited England during the final leg of a larger European tour largely devoted to touting his important new discovery, the alpha helix. Lecturing about his proposed protein structure inevitably led to Pauling’s visiting all of the major centers for research in England that were focusing on proteins. One of these centers was the Department of Physics at Cambridge University – the Cavendish – directed by Bragg, a Nobel laureate and Pauling’s long-time scientific rival. While visiting the Cavendish, Pauling also met with a non-traditional graduate student with whom he had communicated only a few times, via letter. This student was Francis Crick, the British scientist who, together with his American colleague James Watson, would go on discover the double-helical structure of DNA the following year.

Francis Crick, 1955.

One afternoon during Pauling’s visit, Crick and Pauling shared a taxi cab as they traveled around the premises of Cambridge.  During this jaunt, the two discussed several topics of mutual interest, including Pauling’s alpha helix. Eventually this conversation turned to an examination as to why Pauling’s model of the alpha helix lacked the 5.1 angstrom repeating turn (all helices, by definition, twist) found in x-rays of keratin, a fibrous protein structure that makes up the outer layer of human skin. Pauling’s model predicted a turn every 5.4 angstroms. This mystery had remained a thorn in Pauling’s model since his publication of the alpha helix a year prior.

During their cab ride, Crick is reputed to have asked Pauling about the possibility that alpha helices are coiled around one another. Pauling, according to a letter recounting the event, replied that he had, and that this reply marked the end of the discussion of coiled-coils between the two scientists. Crick, however, claimed in a later letter that the conversation was longer and more detailed. Whether or not the conversation was brief or of greater length, this was the beginning of a controversy.

His tour completed, Pauling returned to Caltech and renewed work on the angstrom reflection problem dogging the alpha helix. He and Robert Corey, the biochemist with whom Pauling and Herman Branson had collaborated to develop the alpha helix, soon found that if two to seven alpha helices were wound “like a piece of yarn around a finger, into a sort of coiled-coil” the resulting structure would match the 5.1 angstrom reflection found in x-rays of keratin. This addition to the alpha helix hypothesis built upon an undated idea of Pauling’s that was written down in a travel journal that he kept during the European tour. The notes describe a structure that Pauling named “AB6” – six alpha helices (B6) coiled around a seventh (A).

Pauling’s first notes on what would later be described as “coiled-coils.”

Meanwhile, back at Cambridge, Peter Pauling – one of Linus and Ava Helen’s three sons – was working at the Cavendish as a graduate student alongside Crick and Watson, having arrived the same summer as his father. Peter told Crick – who was also working on “coiled-coils” of the alpha helix – of his father’s research in Pasadena. This news undoubtedly felt to Crick like Linus Pauling had built upon the ideas that Crick brought up in their conversation.

In a rush to be published first, Crick hurriedly finished his research and dashed off a note to the journal Nature in October 1952, only to discover that Pauling’s own manuscript had arrived just a few days before. However, in a surprise twist, Crick’s manuscript was published first, likely due to two factors: 1. Crick’s paper was shorter, and 2. it was sent with a cover letter from Max Perutz, a supporter of Crick and part of Bragg’s Cavendish team, requesting high-speed publication.

The following month, Pauling wrote a letter to Jerry Donohue, a former Caltech doctoral student who had worked with Pauling since the 1940s and was, at the time, working at the Cavendish on a Guggenheim Fellowship. The communication was in reply to a letter that Donohue had written to Pauling reporting on Crick’s Nature submission.  In his reply Pauling explained that he remembered the conversation with Crick involving the alpha helix during the past summer. Cognizant of the controversy brewing over the provenance of the coiled-coil idea, Pauling specifically wrote that the conversation with Crick was brief.

A few months later, in March 1953, Pauling wrote a similar letter to Max Perutz, this one containing more detail on the matter. Pauling mentions in the letter that he had thought of Crick’s suggestion prior to their conversation, but had not fully fleshed it out; a claim perhaps supported by Pauling’s travel journal.

Pauling to Perutz, March 29, 1953.

Francis Crick was given a copy of Pauling’s letter to Perutz. In response, Crick recalled the taxi cab conversation as having been longer than Pauling remembered, and more in depth on the subject of the coiled-coils, thus leading him to the assumption that Pauling had built upon his ideas. This would have been fine, Crick wrote, had Pauling simply informed Crick so that the two scientists could publish simultaneously, giving credit where credit was due as well as bolstering each other’s work.

Crick to Pauling, April 14, 1953.

Crick did admit that Pauling’s paper was more detailed and thorough than was his own, and also came to different conclusions on key points. These factors were enough for both Caltech and the Cavendish to declare that Pauling and Crick had generated their ideas on coiled-coils independent of one other, if simultaneously.

Linus Pauling and the Structure of Proteins: A Documentary History


Today is Linus Pauling’s birthday – he would have been 112 years old.  Every year on February 28th we try to do something special and this time around we’re pleased to announce a project about which we’re all very excited: the sixth in our series of Pauling documentary history websites.

Launched today, Linus Pauling and the Structure of Proteins is the both latest in the documentary history series and our first since 2010’s The Scientific War Work of Linus C. Pauling. (we’ve been a little busy these past few years)  Like Pauling’s program of proteins research, the new website is sprawling and multi-faceted.  It features well over 200 letters and manuscripts, as well as the usual array of photographs, papers, audio and video that users of our sites have come to expect.  A total of more than 400 primary source materials illustrate and provide depth to the site’s 45-page Narrative, which was written by Pauling biographer Thomas Hager.


Warren Weaver, 1967.

That narrative tells a remarkable story that was central to many of the twentieth century’s great breakthroughs in molecular biology.  Readers will, for example, learn much of Pauling’s many interactions with Warren Weaver and the Rockefeller Foundation, the organization whose interest in the “science of life” helped prompt Pauling away from his early successes on the structure of crystals in favor of investigations into biological topics.

So too will users learn about Pauling’s sometimes caustic confrontations with Dorothy Wrinch, whose cyclol theory of protein structure was a source of intense objection for Pauling and his colleague, Carl Niemann.  Speaking of colleagues, the website also delves into the fruitful collaboration enjoyed between Pauling and his Caltech co-worker, Robert Corey.  The controversy surrounding Pauling’s interactions with another associate, Herman Branson, are also explored on the proteins website.

Linus Pauling shaking hands with Peter Lehman in front of two models of the alpha-helix. 1950s.

Linus Pauling shaking hands with Peter Lehman in front of two models of the alpha-helix. 1950s.

Much is known about Pauling’s famously lost “race for DNA,” contested with Jim Watson, Francis Crick and a handful of others in the UK.  Less storied is the long running competition between Pauling’s laboratory and an array of British proteins researchers, waged several years before Watson and Crick’s breakthrough.  That triumph, the double helix, was inspired by Pauling’s alpha helix, discovered one day when Linus lay sick in bed, bored and restless as he fought off a cold. (This was before the vitamin C days, of course.)

Illustration of the antibody-antigen framework, 1948.

Illustration of the antibody-antigen framework, 1948.

Many more discoveries lie in waiting for those interested in the history of molecular biology: the invention of the ultracentrifuge by The Svedberg; Pauling’s long dalliance with a theory of antibodies; his hugely important concept of biological specificity; and the contested notion of coiled-coils, an episode that once again pit Pauling versus Francis Crick.

Linus Pauling and the Structure of Proteins constitutes a major addition to the Pauling canon. It is an enormously rich resource that will suit the needs of many types of researchers, students and educators. It is, in short, a fitting birthday present for history’s only recipient of two unshared Nobel Prizes.

Happy birthday, Dr. Pauling!


The Alpha Helix

Space-filling model of the alpha helix.

[The Paulings in England: Part 5 of 5]

It has been said that sometimes blessings come in disguise, and so it may be that we have the damp English spring to thank for the elucidation of the alpha-helix structure of alpha-keratin – a fundamental and ubiquitous secondary structure pattern found in many proteins.

Linus Pauling was plagued by sinusitis for much of his time in England, and for three days in March 1948 it had become severe enough to put him in bed (as he was fond of saying over the years, this was before his vitamin C days). After a day spent devouring mystery novels, Pauling asked Ava Helen if she would bring him some paper and his slide rule, at which point he started trying to figure out how polypeptide chains might fold up into a satisfactory protein structure.

Pauling’s canvas was just an ordinary 8 1/2 by 11 inch sheet of paper. His first step was to draw the correct bond angles and distances onto the sheet, as determined from previous x-ray crystallographic work on polypeptides. Next he folded the sheet along parallel lines into a sort of squared-off tube. Doing so allowed him to add in representations of hydrogen bonds, which the impromptu model suggested would form between amino acid residues and, as a result, hold the turns of the polypeptide together.

The model made sense and pretty quickly it was clear that Pauling had discovered something important.  As he later wrote, his folded creation “turned out to be the structure of hair and horn and fingernail, and also present in myoglobin and hemoglobin and other globular proteins, a structure called the alpha-helix .”

Reconstruction of the alpha-helix paper model. Drawn and folded by Linus Pauling, 1982.

Pauling kept this idea to himself until his return to the United States because something didn’t match up quite right with the current laboratory data. Specifically, the turns of Pauling’s helix didn’t mirror the 5.1 angstrom repeat found in all of William T. Astbury‘s x-ray patterns. Pauling’s structure came close, but made a turn every 5.4 angstroms, or every 3.7 amino acid residues.

After his return home, with the assistance of colleagues Robert Corey and Herman Branson, Pauling continued refining his alpha helix structure and developing others, including the beta sheet. Simultaneously, the Caltech group’s chief British rivals at the Cavendish Laboratory published a paper titled “Polypeptide Chain Configurations in Crystalline Proteins.” The paper promised more than it delivered though, and while it listed many possible structures, Pauling found none of them to be likely. The competition was still on.

Pauling was finally convinced to publish when he received word that a British chemical firm called Courtaulds had created a synthetic polypeptide chain that showed no sign of Astbury’s 5.1 angstrom reflection in x-ray diffraction images. This was enough evidence for Pauling to decide that the 5.1 angstrom repeat was, perhaps, not a vital component of all polypeptide chains.  And so it was that in April 1951 Pauling, Corey and Branson published “The structure of proteins: Two hydrogen-bonded helical configurations of the polypeptide chain,” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

After devouring the Pauling group’s results shortly after their publication, Max Perutz headed to the Cavendish lab at Cambridge to check the data himself. Having confirmed the structure in images of horsehair, porcupine quill, synthetic polypeptides, hemoglobin and, for good measure, some old protein films that had been tucked away, Perutz wrote to Pauling, “The fulfillment of this prediction and, finally, the discovery of this reflection in hemoglobin has been the most thrilling discovery of my life.” He then published an analysis of his own data, concluding, “The spacing at which this reflexion appears excludes all models except the 3.7 residue helix of Pauling, Corey and Branson, with which it is in complete accord.”

Video Link: Pauling Recounts His Discovery of the Alpha Helix

It wasn’t until a year later that the mystery of Astbury’s 5.1 angstrom reflection was finally solved. In 1952, on a visit to the Cavendish, Pauling met Francis Crick, the then-graduate student who would go on to play a huge part in the discovery of the structure of DNA. The two maintained similar interests and during a taxi ride around Cambridge found themselves discussing the matter of the alpha helix. “Have you thought about the possibility,” Crick asked Pauling, “that alpha helixes are coiled around one another?” Whether Pauling had or had not considered this possibility remains a point of contention, but Pauling remembered replying that he had, because he had been considering a number of higher-level schemes for his helixes, including some which wound around each other.

Regardless, Pauling returned to Caltech and both he and Crick set to work on the problem. With help from Corey, Pauling discovered a means by which the alpha helixes could wrap around each other in a coiled-coil to produce the problematic 5.1 angstrom found in Astbury’s pictures of natural keratin.  Crick, in the meantime, was conducting a very similar study.  Pauling and Crick, independent of one another, ultimately submitted the solution to this puzzle for publication within days of each other, and at first there was a bit of grumbling as to whom the credit should be awarded. Though Crick’s note was published first, the Cavendish camp eventually conceded that Pauling’s paper included considerably more detail of consequence, and it was finally settled that both scientists had independently come to the same general conclusion.

Pauling receiving his honorary degree from the University of Paris, 1948.

After Pauling’s two fruitful terms as Eastman Professor at Oxford were up in July, the family split their remaining time between travels in Amsterdam, Switzerland and Paris. Pauling rounded off the trip by receiving yet another honorary degree from the University of Paris, and on August 25, 1948, the Paulings set sail once more on the Queen Mary.

His eight months in Europe had been productive and enlightening, but Pauling was ready to return to Pasadena where he could share the myriad ideas he had generated and gathered during his time away from Caltech. As we have seen, he was especially eager to get back to work on proteins, writing shortly before his departure that “I have continued to work on my theory of metals, and have been doing nothing about proteins. However, I am looking forward to being back home, and to thinking about that subject again.”