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Studying at the University of Witwatersrand


Reading and the book that got me into science
Aaron Klug Scientist
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I read a lot, they had a good library, a good public library and the school had a library, as I said. The... but I mostly it was outdoors, we were at the beach. We would go down to the beach for swimming and there was the bush, we did a lot of tracking in the bush, it was quite a thing, I said so. You have to take potassium permanganate with you in case you're bitten by a snake and things like that. So it was... hobbies was mostly playing after school. When we came back from school we’d played cricket on the local park and things like that. It was all no, I had no... oh yes, I made model aeroplanes of glue and paper and things like that.

[Q] What sort of books did you read, were they science books or fiction or everything?

I read a lot of fiction, Biggles, and we read The Boys' Own Paper, we read The Gem and The Magnet which were kind of things based upon Billie Bunter in English school, and it was... the whole thing was... the predominant culture was English and we had English comics and we had English newspapers. We didn't have them in the home but later on when the War had started they used to get them. So... but I read very widely and I, at one point, when I was in – close to matric, which is the last year, I actually thought I might become an Egyptologist because I... because I... I'd been... my brother and I'd been learning Hebrew on not a very in-depth level but, you know. I discovered that the... the West Semitic Hebrew Phoenician Alphabet came from the Phoenician... came from the Egyptian. So I actually began to try and teach myself Hieroglyphics, which wasn't... I did learn, I learnt to read the cartouche of Cleopatra and things like that but it wasn't very advanced. But, then I... really, I had a... there was transformation, I came across a book by Paul De Kruif called Microbe Hunters, and I discovered since then that many people have been influenced by this book, it's been reprinted. And it told the exciting story of people like Pasteur and Koch and things like that. So I decided that I would become a microbiologist and the only way to do that would be to take medicine, do medicine; there was no medical school in Durban so I went to the Witwatersrand. I should say, before we leave this topic, I read very, very widely, I read quite a lot of history. I remember reading the history of the Popes, which I can't remember why, by Ranke. I didn't know that Ranke was the greatest German historian but that was the kind of thing. And, we had a... on the stairwell of the Durban Public Library there was a painting of TS Eliot, I didn't know who TS Eliot was but the... and the painting was by Wyndham Lewis. And I discovered many years later who they were. So there was this culture diffused throughout.

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: Microbe Hunters, University of Witwatersrand, Paul De Kruif, TS Eliot, Wyndam Lewis

Duration: 3 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008