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Winning the Nobel Prize


Teaching at Peterhouse College, Cambridge
Aaron Klug Scientist
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I was made a Fellow of Peterhouse when I arrived here in 1962, as a Teaching Fellow of Peterhouse. This was prompted by John Kendrew who was Director of Studies in Science at Peterhouse, in fact one of the, the smallest Cambridge College. John Kendrew was then Deputy Director of the Laboratory of which Max Perutz was the Head and so... I hadn't done much teaching, I did give a few lectures at Birkbeck, but I had a fairly good all-round education in science and he said, would I become a Teaching Fellow? I was always quite interested in it and it offered 300 pounds a year, seven meals a week and parking. By this time, we had a car. And so I said I'd do it.

So what I did, I taught a variety of subjects, as indeed John had done. In crystallography, he had done... taught crystallography, parts of chemistry, history and glossary of science, we were supposed to be all-rounders. I gradually specialised in fact, and discovered that the different chemists would only teach either physics, physical, organic or inorganic, and this is against the grain, you were supposed to do everything. In the Oxford system, you assigned the tutorial, he now looks at the tutor, he looked at everything, but here in Cambridge, there were supervisors for different subjects. And the job... so he was Director of Studies and I, in my first year, I supervised in physics and I started at year one, when through year two, year three, although I couldn't delay, so I did some things in parallel. So I really learnt a lot of physics. I had a good foundation, really through the teachings of James, but then as new... but then when John Kendrew... this was in 1962, by 1970 John Kendrew had got himself involved with the EMBO, that this European Molecular Biology Organisation, and later the Laboratories he was setting up, so he was hardly ever around. So he asked me to take his place as Director of Studies, which meant I not only had to teach myself in subjects, but also find supervisors for the students doing the Tripos and the Science Tripos in Cambridge covers a lot of choices, quite unlike Oxford where you are assigned to a Department and they teach everything. So it meant that I had to make myself familiar with quite a few other subjects. Well, I'd done experimental psychology years before, and as they introduced new subjects, for example, biology of cells which was really an introduction to biochemistry, this is in the first year, and things of that sort, and crystallography I hardly did at all. I enlisted some people, including John Finch in mathematics, and later I enlisted Tony Crowther, and Jo Butler for biochemistry. So it was having a look at the people in the Lab. They paid reasonably well, and it was also good to have contact with students, because we sometimes attracted them here.

I always thought... some people in the MRC Lab here thought that the most important thing they could do would be research and teaching would be a waste of time. I found it quite stimulating, because I learnt more, not that I was sure what I could do with all that I learnt. But as I said because I was teaching optics, which I think must have influenced me when I was trying to understand electron microscope pictures of periodic objects and introduced optical diffraction, so there... there is a direct pay-off, so to speak, but more generally. And in the College... in the College, you taught for six hours a week, and I used to do it in two batches of three hours, which was quite a big stint, and you... the system consisted of people handing in work, they'd been set questions before. The questions were either worked examples or essays sometimes, like 'Are Newton's laws a tautology?', but those have gradually faded out. But I taught everything and up to... in the end, I also taught molecular spectroscopy group theory, which you would classify molecular orbitals and microwave spectroscopy, which actually introduced me to understanding NMR which is a very similar system, so it was really quite useful. So when I came to set up... or tried to get NMR set up in this Laboratory, I actually understood what it was about. So I think it was generally quite useful. It took up some time and I used... I wasn't very adept at it, but I... because I hadn't been through the Cambridge course myself, but I think... I think I was a good teacher, partly because I wasn't totally skilful. I remember what Ken Holmes told me... He'd been supervised by Abdul Salam and Fred Hoyle, do I remember correctly? And they just whizzed through. They absolutely... they were physicists, one a theoretical physicist, and they never had to struggle. Occasionally I used to have to struggle with some of the problems, particularly in part two of physics, but I think they'd learned from that, because I didn't mind saying I didn't know, and I would tell them tomorrow, and things of that sort. But in the College, I wasn't what was called 'a good College man'. I did my bit. I sat on committees. I was... I joined the Estates Committee. I was told it met before Governing Bodies on Monday evenings at 7.30, and these had met before, I assumed an hour before, it met four hours before! So I learnt quite a bit about the college system and so on. It was a... but I was able to do it because I had very able either research students or post-docs or members of the Lab, including Holmes and Finch. I wouldn't be able to do it, if they hadn't been able to carry on with the thing, I would think. But it was a useful link. I was encouraged by Max Perutz because so few people in this Lab had links directly to the University. I also taught a few courses in the University, just as an invited lecturer. I wasn't... we didn't have a rank in the University, except through a Fellow at College, but later on I was made an honorary Professor of Molecular Biology in the University, so I got the title of Professor which would have pleased my mother. I know it pleased... I know it pleased John Kendrew when Heidelberg was made a Professor, because I remember coming back to Durban once, and one of my mother's friends, a rather bossy woman, said, 'What? Not a professor yet?' You see, because I was already an FRS, but wasn't a professor, you see, so... It's a sidelight on Cambridge.

I went on teaching after my Nobel Prize for a few years, which surprised people, but they were introducing new courses in quantum chemistry, and polymers, which I knew a good deal about, I had worked on that in fact, so I did go on teaching a bit because I taught solid state physics. So I had a rounded repertoire. It was a bit of a schizophrenic life but I... looking back on it, but I didn't seem to mind, and we also, of course, had... by this time in 1962, our second son was born, nine years older [younger] than the first, and so... I was a reasonable parent and, I hope, husband but I did hear people say in Cambridge that there were three things you could do, and you could only do two of them. One was in the Lab, the other was to teach, and the other was to be a family man. But somehow, I did all three, yes.

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: Peterhouse College, Cambridge, European Molecular Biology Organisation, EMBO, Science Tripos, John Kendrew, Max Perutz, Ken Holmes

Duration: 8 minutes, 50 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008