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Work at Birkbeck and meeting Rosalind Franklin


Moving to Birkbeck College to work in JD Bernal's department
Aaron Klug Scientist
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I wanted to get into biological crystallography by this time and there was a... a... and there was an advert for... for a Nuffield Fellowship at Birkbeck College in London in Bernal's Department. And of course, I knew about [JD] Bernal; Bernal, of course, is the real founder of molecular biology, structural molecular biology. He was a man who... he was the spirit behind it all, it's what person... he was the man who, Max Perutz had worked with when he came to Cambridge, he was the one who'd got the first protein X-ray diffraction picture with Dorothy Hodgkin and also the first haemoglobin pictures which Max Perutz took to Bragg. But Bernal by this time had gone off to Birkbeck College in London; in 1938 there was a great change of chairs in... in a... Rutherford died and Bragg became... Bragg became Professor at the Cavendish; Bernal went to Birkbeck and so on. So I... I got this Fellowship, it was pretty... it was a good... it was rather more money than I'd ever had before. We were very poorly financed, we lived very simply; we were married, of course, by this time, we'd both come to England and...

[Q] Was it specifically to join Harry Carlisle or...?

It was to join Bernal's Department and there were various other things but I'd... to join a man called Harry Carlisle who was working on the X-ray crystallography of ribonuclease. To set the picture, at the time, no protein structure had been solved. It was just the first projection of haemoglobin had been solved by Perutz by isomorphous replacement. Yes. And Harry Carlisle had worked with Dorothy Hodgkin in Oxford; And Dorothy Hodgkin, she was a wizard in that kind of... she... she... people thought of her as a mathematician, but she wasn't. She just had a kind of insight and so she could solve... and she solved... she was solving the structure of... well, later on she did Vitamin B12. But earlier on she solved cholesterol and she had to disentangle the right hand and the left handed forms from the... And so Harry Carlisle had been her PhD student and Post Doc. And it wasn't a good place for him to be because he's no magician. So he was actually trying to solve ribonuclease and doing some strange manipulations; starting off with a structure and lopping off the peaks and the negative troughs. And then trying to... what's the word? Refine them, and it was nonsense. Well, I knew I could write down mathematically what he was doing and showed that what he was doing was doing an exponential form of Sayre's equation; he didn't understand that. Anyway, I... he said, well, there... in my map there were... the resolution map there must be alpha helices, so I wrote a programme which was seeking... image seeking programme to calculate the Patterson function of an alpha helix. And very laboriously and many, many sheets of pictures with transparent things looking for the alpha helices and I couldn't find any. So I told Harry Carlisle that... and he thought it was... he thought, well, obviously I was wrong, you see, so I was banished, literally banished upstairs.

[Q] Was there no attempt to push the heavy atom?

No... no... well, they did later.

[Q] Yes.

But, the... I knew, I already knew about Perutz because Perutz, in '53 and '54 there was a meeting of the X-ray... X-ray nurses... X-ray crystallography in Paris to which I went. And Harry... I said, this is not the way to do it, and I saw Bernal, who's the Head of the Department, you know, the leading figure. Bernal was so involved in politics, he was a well-known Communist fellow traveller, I'm not too sure if he was a member of the Communist party or not. But was on 50 committees and he was... he would... he was, well, you'll remember him. He... he would... he did have some idea of working with what we called constellation, looking at the strongest reflections. And Harry had started off trying to get guess phases for those, but, otherwise he never played any role. He was the... he was the man that got the money in the Department. The Department was an interesting place because it had all sorts of things going on there. There was flower, the structures of... of starches, flower molecules, carbons which Rosalind Franklin was on working unbeknown to me. Yes. And so... I got a Nuffield... I had that so I was banished upstairs to a small room, in an attic room. And in the attic room there were... some cards, punched cards which were crystallographic structure data. And Bernal... there was a lady, a young woman who came in sometimes, it was Olga Kennard, that was the beginning of the crystallographic data collection from which she actually built up into a... you know, very valuable resource.

[Q] Yes.

But Bernal foresaw... Bernal foresaw everything, but he never... he never carried anything out, you see. He paid no attention to detail, he never... when he hired people he paid no attention to their records. He believed that once you had a plan you could just hire people and they'd execute it. It was really a real lack... lack of understanding, but in the end it's the quality of the people that matters. And... I... I mean, he must have understood that, in some sense, he was no fool. But later on, I think this was interesting, later on when I once went to a meeting, it was many years later, and Bernal had already had his stroke. He said to me, 'I went to see him; I've been defeated by the Rockefeller principle'. I said, 'What's the Rockefeller principle? '. He said, 'Oh, the Rockefeller people don't give money to projects they give them to people'. And you see, he believed that if you... you know, being a Marxist and a planner, you could plan all these things. And if you had the right plans and you had the right ideas and the right equipment then you could hire someone to do it. Because, I remember, apropos Bernal, when Rosalind was trying to hire somebody before you two appeared on the scene, he wanted her to appoint some Australian, who'd just applied. He had no... he was an interesting fellow, but he had no real credentials. And Rosalind... Rosalind said, 'Bernal wants me to'. I said, 'Well, if you don't believe he's going to be any good, don't do it'; but, that's the kind of man Bernal was. So it was quite an experience, you learned a lot of things from just watching the people; what not to do from people like that.

Born in Lithuania, Aaron Klug (1926-2018) was a British chemist and biophysicist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982 for developments in electron microscopy and his work on complexes of nucleic acids and proteins. He studied crystallography at the University of Cape Town before moving to England, completing his doctorate in 1953 at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1981, he was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University. His long and influential career led to a knighthood in 1988. He was also elected President of the Royal Society, and served there from 1995-2000.

Listeners: Ken Holmes John Finch

Kenneth Holmes was born in London in 1934 and attended schools in Chiswick. He obtained his BA at St Johns College, Cambridge. He obtained his PhD at Birkbeck College, London working on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus with Rosalind Franklin and Aaron Klug. After a post-doc at Childrens' Hospital, Boston, where he started to work on muscle structure, he joined to the newly opened Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge where he stayed for six years. He worked with Aaron Klug on virus structure and with Hugh Huxley on muscle. He then moved to Heidelberg to open the Department of Biophysics at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research where he remained as director until his retirement. During this time he completed the structure of tobacco mosaic virus and solved the structures of a number of protein molecules including the structure of the muscle protein actin and the actin filament. Recently he has worked on the molecular mechanism of muscle contraction. He also initiated the use of synchrotron radiation as a source for X-ray diffraction and founded the EMBL outstation at DESY Hamburg. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1981 and is a member of a number of scientific academies.

John Finch is a retired member of staff of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. He began research as a PhD student of Rosalind Franklin's at Birkbeck College, London in 1955 studying the structure of small viruses by x-ray diffraction. He came to Cambridge as part of Aaron Klug's team in 1962 and has continued with the structural study of viruses and other nucleoproteins such as chromatin, using both x-rays and electron microscopy.

Tags: Birkbeck College, JD Bernal, Rosalind Franklin, Harry Carlisle, Dorothy Hodgkin, Olga Kennard

Duration: 7 minutes, 7 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008