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Max Perutz and the Secret of Life

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

By Georgina Ferry

© 2007 • 352 pp., illus., glossary, index
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Hardcover •
ISBN  978-087969785-3

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  •     Description    
  •     Contents    
  •     Reviews    
  •     Related Titles    


Few scientists have thought more deeply about the nature of their calling and its impact on humanity than Max Perutz (1914–2002). Born in Vienna, Jewish by descent, lapsed Catholic by religion, he came to Cambridge in 1936 to join the lab of the legendary Communist thinker J.D. Bernal. There he began to explore the structures of the molecules that hold the secret of life. In 1940, he was interned and deported to Canada as an enemy alien, only to be brought back and set to work on a bizarre top secret war project. In 1947, he founded the small research group in which Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA: under his leadership it grew to become the world–famous Laboratory for Molecular Biology. Max himself explored the protein hemoglobin and his work, which won him a Nobel Prize in 1962, launched a new era of medicine, heralding today’s astonishing advances in the genetic basis of disease.

Max Perutz’s story, wonderfully told by Georgina Ferry, brims with life. It has the zest of an adventure novel and is full of extraordinary characters. Max was demanding, passionate and driven but also humorous, compassionate and loving. Small in stature, he became a fearless mountain climber; drawing on his own experience as a refugee, he argued fearlessly for human rights; he could be ruthless but had a talent for friendship. An articulate and engaging advocate of science, he found new problems to engage his imagination until weeks before he died aged 88.

About the author: Georgina Ferry is a former staff editor on New Scientist, and contributor to BBC Radio 4’s Science Now. Her books include the acclaimed biography Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life (1998); The Common Thread (2002, with Sir John Sulston); and A Computer Called LEO (2003). She lives in Oxford.


List of Illustrations
Preface and Acknowledgements
1. Scenes from a Vienna Childhood
2. ‘It Was Cambridge That Made Me’
3. ‘The Most Dangerous Characters of All’
4. Home and Homeland
5. Mountains and Mahomet
6. How Haemoglobin Was Not Solved
7. Annus Mirabilis
8. In Search of Solutions
9. A Structure for Science — the LMB
10. The Breathing Molecule
11. Health and Disease
12. Truth Always Wins
Select Bibliography


review:  “Ferry succeeds in bringing [Perutz] sharply to life....[she] avoids the pop-psychology that permeates so many modern biographies, while offering insight into Perutz’s temperament and behaviour.”
      —Gregory A. Petsko, Brandeis University (Nature)

review:  “Ferry does a superb job of using the correspondence, archival sources, interviews, and other traditional tools of biography writing...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:  “Perutz made a wise choice when he chose to invite Georgina Ferry to write his life. The result is an engaging, beautifully written book deserving a place on the shelf of everyone who likes to read about science and scientists.

Ferry takes Perutz’s career through to the end of his life with his work on the amyloid associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Whether dealing with personal matters or explaining the science, Ferry handles the subject matter with ease and clarity.

As the official biographer, Ferry has handled Perutz’s mix of vanity and self-deprecation, vicious critique and devoted admiration, diplomatically, reporting not judging.”
      —Medical History

review:  “Georgina Ferry has written a superb biography of one of the most influential and likable figures of modern science, Max Perutz of Cambridge University...In places the book reads like a novel, but its facts are always correct...Ferry does a magnificent job of expressing the doubts, difficulties, and uncertainty of Max Perutz's life...Unreservedly recommended!”
      —Protein Science

review:  “Ferry continues to shine as a first-rate science writer with this new biography.”

review:  “In 2002, Georgina Ferry, author of an acclaimed biography of Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin, was called to the bedside of the dying 88-year-old Max Perutz, a former friend and colleague of Hodgkin’s.His request was simple — do for him what she had done for Hodgkin. The result is Max Perutz and the secret of life, a thoroughly engaging account of the birth of molecular biology as told through the life story of one of its most enigmatic founders...

[T]his is a wonderful book, effectively presenting a complex man in a complex time and reminding us that unusual career training pathways, scientific rigor, and collaborative transdisciplinary science are not new ideas of the 21st century.”
      —The Journal of Clinical Investigation

review:  “Biographies that are most apt to appeal to physicians offer a coherent and accurate account of the subject’s contributions to medicine, along with insights into his or her character and personality. Georgina Ferry amply fulfills these criteria in her account of the life of Max Perutz, the Nobel laureate who worked out the structure of hemoglobin and the chemical basis of its physiological properties. Her lively narrative draws us into the world of high-powered science, with its triumphs, frustrations, and foibles.”
      —The New England Journal of Medicine

review:  “ evenhanded look at the achievements of one of the greats of 20th-century science.”
      —Chemical & Engineering News

review:  “A biographer, it seems to me, walks a fine line: he or she needs to be truthful, enthusiastic and selective without suppressing, inventing or distorting the individual whose life is under scrutiny. He or she must allow his or her readers to feel, as well as to understand, the passions, foibles and idiosyncrasies that made his or her subject a person while dealing with family members and intimates who might object to a biography on the grounds that it’s nobody’s business. On all counts, Ferry’s beautifully written book meets and passes the test with flying colors...

In telling the story of this admirable man and exceptional scientist, Ferry has succeeded in making her subject live again for the reader.”
      —Nature Medicine

review:  “[A]n engaging read. Ferry freely steps back in time with almost every chapter to develop a particular theme. The result is an insightful look at Perutz’s life and work and the role he played in what was arguably the most productive collaboration of scientists in twentieth-century molecular biology.”
      —Bulletin for the History of Chemistry

review:  “As a much larger-than-life character, [Perutz] left lasting imprints on many colleagues whom Ferry interviewed to round out her story. Despite the complexities of Max’s personality and his eccentricities (most of which centred, curiously in view of his robust health, on his physical health and diet), she avoids any hint of psychobiography and presents a relatively straightforward account of this remarkable man, whose career played out against the momentous events of the twentieth century.”
      —Crystallography Reviews

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