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What a Time I Am Having: Selected Letters of Max Perutz

Subject Area(s):  General Interest TitlesAutobiography/BiographyHistory of Science

Edited by Vivien Perutz

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© 2009 • 506 pp., illus., index
Hardcover •
ISBN  978-087969864-5

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Selected by his daughter, Vivien, from Max Perutz’s voluminous correspondence, the letters reproduced here portray their author with a spontaneity and directness no autobiography could have matched. They chronicle Perutz’s adventurous life through his own vivid, erudite and humorous pen, documenting the hopes, roadblocks and moments of elation of his sixty-year quest to understand the molecular biology of hemoglobin. The first great step in this quest — unraveling the molecular structure of hemoglobin — earned Perutz the 1962 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Narrated against a backdrop of family and friends, politics and war, literature, travels, and Max’s beloved mountains, these letters provide rare insight into the thoughts of a remarkable and very human scientist, and delightful sketches of some of the people he encountered. Starting with lively letters to a girlfriend written in his youth in Vienna and the impressions of a young scientist in Cambridge, the letters progress to the desperate pleas of an “enemy alien” interned in Canada during World War II. The diary of Perutz’s subsequent super-secret war work for the British to build a floating ice airstrip in the North Atlantic, ardent campaigning letters to scientists and politicians, and self-deprecating stories of his own mishaps written to amuse his children and grandchildren are some of the many highlights of these fascinating letters, unique in the annals of recent scientific history. This book is a companion to Georgina Ferry’s Max Perutz and the Secret of Life. Together these volumes provide a portrait of an extraordinary character in the development of molecular biology.


Timeline: A Life in Dates
List of Correspondents and People Referred to by First Name or Nickname
List of Illustrations
Archival Repositories of the Letters
Memoir of Max Perutz by David Blow
1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s
Subject index


review:  “The collection of Perutz’s letters that his daughter Vivien has edited (many of them translated from German) creates a life that is saturated with the immediacy of those letters...[They] will give you a feeling that you are reading someone else’s mail. It created a sense of guilt because I felt that I was snooping into his privacy and, at the same time, it gave me a historian’s thrill to see his mind linked to the moment. Perutz has a wonderful sense of the settings, personalities, and events that touch on his major life episodes. What was particularly enjoyable in reading the letters was encountering his personality...Teachers of undergraduates will treasure [this book] for the rich coverage of the birth of molecular biology and the circumstances that made it possible.”
      —The Quarterly Review of Biology

review:  “The book is prefaced by the republication of a memoir by David Blow. This provides a brief overview of [Perutz’s] career for readers not familiar with his work, and gives an idea of the regard with which he was held. This is an important contextual piece of information that immediately makes the book more accessible to a younger and wider audience. The book is of interest to scientists today since it gives an insight into the thought processes of the man that shaped molecular biology in England, Europe and further afield. It will also serve as part of an important record for historians and philosophers of science, who will appreciate its completeness...

The book gives a very personal account of the rise of molecular biology—from the start of the field charting its rise to prominence and success in tackling a wide range of human diseases. All of this is seen through the correspondence of one man, albeit one of its finest practitioners. It is rare for the public to gain such a detailed view of the inner thoughts of scientists—usually they are too scared of misinterpretation to speak to the press. This book will help those that are interested in science see what drives such people to dedicate their lives to problems such as the mechanism for the transport of oxygen through the body on a molecular level.”

review:  “All crystallographers will find much to like in this splendid book...many other scientists I think will also find interest in its insights on the workings of science and on Max Perutz as a leading figure in this field and beyond.... It is a privilege to have access to all these letters in this remarkable and splendid volume.”
      —Crystallography Reviews

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