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Reading and the book that got me into science


School with a locked library
Aaron Klug Scientist
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My brother and I went to the local primary school which was quite interesting. And we lived on the edge of the bush – the Stella bush – and it was very nice to grow up there because the... there were monkeys in the trees – vervet monkeys – and we lived there... we moved house several times but we always lived on the edge, near the bush. And so, when we grew older, we would go on bikes and up these trails and it was a very colourful place because there were Indian market gardeners up beyond the bush, up the hills. And, of course, we had black servants and it was very colourful. And my... I would sometimes go with my mother to the Indian Market when I was a boy to help to carry the things; we went by tram in those days. So, the early years were quite, quite exciting, there were snakes in the... in the grass you learnt, whenever we went there we'd carry potassium permanganate with us. And, the school I went to was a mixed school, which was a bit unusual at the time. But then I went to high school and high school, of course, was a boys' school – Durban Boys' High School – which was run like an English Grammar School, or... or like a minor public school in some ways as well.  They called themselves a public school. They were public in some sense, but they were... you had to pay a small fee, it was partly subsidised... like a... best analogy would be a Grammar School in this country. And the... it was run on very English lines, the... you had no choice, Latin was the main subject, if you were at all bright you went into the Latin class. There were three classes and you were... there were... it was decided early on the bright boys did Latin, the not so bright did science and the... unless you really were very interested. The difference being that if you did Latin you did mixed science, that is chemistry and physics; and if you did science you did chemistry and physics separately and you dropped Latin. And then the third subject was geography, which came a poor third.

[Q] Which did you do?

I did Latin, well, I had no choice.

[Q] And mixed science?

Mixed science, yes. So... but it was... it was an interesting... we had good masters some of whom had... one of whom had been invalided out of the First World War and came to South Africa because he had something... he had... I think he'd been gassed. So it was his lungs.  So you got a sense of the... well, you got a sense of belonging to the wider world because of the British Empire; I don't think people who grew up in this country can understand the romance of the Empire. I remember being very impressed when my elder brother in 1935, appeared in oil skins at the parade to mark the access... accession of George... the... the 25th Anniversary of George the 5th.  He was dressed in oil skins because he was a Newfoundland fisherman. So, you... well, you learnt about the wider world, you see.

[Q] Yes.

And then in Durban Bay was one of the headquarters of the South East India Squadron [sic], which would come in every now and again... the flotilla would come in and Rear Admiral Evans of the Broke commanding – he was the one who'd been with Scott at the Pole – not Seaman Evans who died, but Lieutenant Evans, he was now Vice Admiral. And, so it was a very, very English town, you were brought up... and quite a lot of the parents of the boys I went to school with called England home. But we did learn Afrikaans, this was... it was compulsory and I actually was pretty fluent in Afrikaans, I was pretty good at languages. And, so the school was... I guess, the standards were about a year behind A levels, so the South African matric, I think we graduate with about a year behind A levels. Since then I think... I think it's gone down but... but, so that the brighter boys in the class would be hived off, there was time to do these things. There was sport, of course... was the main subjects in the afternoons. That was where, and, I think, Ken understands this, the... the playing fields was where you... kept you out of mischief. And, on the fifth day of the week when you didn't have a sport of some kind, you had cadets, you see, so – the cadet force – so it was run like that. The... there was a good library at the school, but it was... it was kept locked. You had to apply for a key, so although there was a... certainly quite a high academic standards it was not regarded as the primary objective. The Captain of the school was the person who mattered. It turned out later that I was Dux at the school but I didn't know it because they'd abandoned the Dux. When I went back to Durban many years later I got a medal, it was about 30 years, no, 40 years later, I got a medal as the Dux of that year because they more or less abandoned it. Because if you applied for a key you got marked as a... as a swot, you see, which was a damnation. But I... my elder brother was in the same class as I was because he was a good sportsman, a good cricketer and he ran fast. So he was... so we were... so, I had protection in that way, but I... I was always two years younger than everybody else because I started school... in those days there was no... you simply went into the class which they thought your ability was, no understanding of the social side of it. And I didn't... I don't think I suffered in any way because, as I say, having my elder brother with whom I got on pretty well. He later became an engineer.

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: British Empire, South Africa

Duration: 6 minutes, 4 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008