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Buckminster Fuller inspires my work in the structure of spherical viruses


After Rosalind Franklin's death
Aaron Klug Scientist
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The NIH [National Institutes of Health] grant kept us going; we were able to recruit a few new people. There was a man who... Arthur Page and Reuben Leberman, but there's a chemist that joined the group. But Rosalind [Franklin]... the key thing was that Rosalind fell ill in 1956, it was ovarian cancer, we found out later. But she went on and she was... had... well, she must have... she had chemotherapy or radiation therapy, she kept... she didn't tell us about it but she used to disappear to University College. And she got better, but in the early 1958 it recurred and she was in the Royal Marsden and then she died in March 1958. And now, so what happened was that by then we began worrying about the future of our... of our group, and of course I inherited the group from her. The... now, at that time the developments in Cambridge, where the MRC Unit was going to move out of the Cavendish Laboratory as Perutz's Unit and move to a new site, a new place, and that was being planned. And I think, I think they would have, it's hard to say, I think they... it was mentioned to both Rosalind and myself that we might move to Cambridge, but nothing was very definite. And when Rosalind died in '58 nothing had been planned, nothing had been decided. But by '59, which was the year... I've forgotten exactly which year, '58 was when the Kendrew structure of myoglobin came out.

[Q] Yes.

And then that was sort of clinched and the MRC realised with X-ray crystallography it would solve protein structures, which was a real landmark in the subject, you see; at last you had the structure of a protein. And the Council of the MRC approved the creation of a new lab rather than a unit; there was some discussion about this because I know that one of the men on the Council was the... oh... what's his name, the man who worked on insulin, Ernst Chain. He voted for it, he thought that structural biology as it was beginning to be called, wouldn't contribute to the structural medicine. He didn't think it would last more than 25 years but they did agree to set up a new lab in Cambridge. And this was really masterminded by Himsworth, Sir Harold Himsworth, the Secretary of the MRC, who were going to build a new lab in Cambridge, outside of the Cavendish laboratory. At one time they looked for a home in one of the other departments but there was never enough space. By this time the MRC unit had been joined by Sydney Brenner who came in '57... and a few others. And so I... so after Rosalind died I was invited to join... join the new MRC, it was going to change its name from MRC Unit for the Structure of Biological... Structure... Study of the Structure Biological Systems, that was its old name to the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. It was the first time the name surfaced really without it being suggested by Astbury some time before. And so at that time I wasn't sure about the future myself because we didn't know what was going to happen, so about '59 and '60 I had an offer to go to Johns Hopkins and start up a new Department of Biophysics. I was quite impressed, we went over on the Queen Mary, and we had our son with us. And it was quite interesting going across on an ocean liner, because I'd been on ocean liners before from Cape Town to Southampton. And I was quite attracted to the idea, in fact, the... the Dean of the Johns Hopkins showed me... they showed me a hole in the ground where the new lab was going to be built. They also showed me, ‘This is going to be your parking place’; I didn't have a car at the time. I don't think I could drive, so... and... but it looked like a good opportunity. And we were visiting friends in New York, staying with friends in New York and Francis Crick appeared and he... he came to see me and Liebe, Liebe was my wife, and he wanted to persuade us not to go to Johns Hopkins, you see, I wasn't clear what the future would be.

[Q] But he managed to persuade you...

He managed to persuade me. What he said was... well, you know we've got a lot of things that we can do and we should be in position to skim the cream off a lot of different subjects, that's the way he put it. Yes. And in the end, well, I couldn't... I couldn't get used to America, I'd been, I'd also visited, I'd spent some weeks visiting, spending time in Alex Rich's lab. I remember David Blow was there at the time, and... And I remember David Blow saying, when we stopped to fill up with gas... he said, gas, he said, 'I'll never get used to this country'; he'd already been there for two years. And I remember that and I wondered, will I ever be able to get used to it, you know, because we were... I mean South Africa became a Republic in '61, I had to make a choice between South African Citizenship and UK Citizenship, so I became a UK Citizen. And being part of the Commonwealth, you automatically had rights in Britain, but this time you had to make a choice. And so I felt, well, Francis was pretty persuasive and so I... so I... and I said... they said, 'I could bring a group with me. ' By that time the group consisted of the two of you, John Finch, Ken Holmes, Reuben Leberman, a biochemist. And we were then developing methods of making Tobacco Mosaic Virus in large quantities really by... by using polymer precipitation coacervates, they would be called. So I decided we would move and Ken Holmes and John Finch moved in '61, as I remember, and I... I stayed on another year because we couldn't find a house. And I used to commute quite a lot and I remember being very well read at the time, the trains were much slower in those days. And eventually we moved in 1962, I moved in '62, and the new lab was ready, was opened by the Queen in July '62.

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: John Finch Ken Holmes

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.

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.

Tags: MRC, Rosalind Franklin, Ernst Chain, Harold Himsworth, David Blow, Ken Holmes

Duration: 7 minutes

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008