National Academies Press: OpenBook

Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62 (1993)


Suggested Citation:"MAX LUDWIG HENNING DELBRUCK." National Academy of Sciences. 1993. Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2201.
Page 67
Suggested Citation:"MAX LUDWIG HENNING DELBRUCK." National Academy of Sciences. 1993. Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2201.
Page 68

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MAX LUDWIG HENNING DELBRÜCK 67 MAX LUDWIG HENNING DELBRÜCK September 4, 1906-March 10, 1981 BY WILLIAM HAYES MAX DELBRÜCK, or just Max as he was called by all his associates, was one of the outstanding natural scientists of our time. A man of rare intellectual ability, and clarity of thought and perception, he excelled in theoretical physics, biology, and philosophy, and possessed a deep knowledge and appreciation of the arts. His dedication to truth, and his intolerance of half-truths and intellectual pretension, were sometimes expressed with a disturbing frankness and abruptness of manner, often construed as arrogance by those who did not know him well. His disclaimer, ''I don't believe a word of it," when told of some new experimental result or hypothesis, became famous among his colleagues. In fact, Max was very gregarious and had a rich vein of friendship and affection in his nature which he was always ready to share with others of all ages. Above all, Max was a born leader whose Socratic influence on those who worked with him was enormous, whose rare praise was something to be coveted and remembered, and whose criticism was welcomed with respect; although Reprinted from Biographical Memoirs, The Royal Society, London, England, 1982.

MAX LUDWIG HENNING DELBRÜCK 68 he was often wrong in his scientific judgement, he was always the first to admit it. On a personal level he engendered in the minds of his friends and colleagues a deep respect and affection that they will not forget. Max was the foremost pioneer of a new approach to an understanding of fundamental biological processes, now known as molecular biology. His most significant studies concerned the multiplication in their host cells of bacterial viruses, called bacteriophages or phages for short. These tiny particles are made up of about equal parts of two chemical components, protein and nucleic acid; infection of a bacterium by a single particle is followed, about 30 minutes later, by rupture of the cell and liberation of a hundred or more progeny particles. As long ago as 1922 the American geneticist H.J. Muller had suggested phage as the simplest possible model for studying the nature and behaviour of genes. For their novel and important studies in this field, Max and his colleagues, Salvador Luria and Alfred Hershey, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1969. However, no account of Max's published work can do justice to his overall influence as the leader of a formidable group of workers, many of them physicists like himself, who infused a new way of thinking, and a new life, into biological research. In addition, he was a direct source of encouragement and inspiration to young research workers of many nationalities and from many disciplines who came to work with him on bacteriophage at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, California, or to attend his famous "Phage Course" at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Long Island, New York, and to whom his intellectual approach to biological problems became an inspiration for their own thinking.

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Biographic Memoirs: Volume 62 contains the biographies of deceased members of the National Academy of Sciences and bibliographies of their published works. Each biographical essay was written by a member of the Academy familiar with the professional career of the deceased. For historical and bibliographical purposes, these volumes are worth returning to time and again.

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