Aaron Klug on Becoming a Scientist
  Aaron Klug     Biography    
Recorded: 17 Jun 2005

Well, when I was at school I was interested in everything. Indeed, I think I wanted to be an Egyptologist, to do Egyptology. Within South Africa there weren’t many openings for that. Then I read a book by Paul de Kruif called Microbe Hunters (interrupted, starts over)…

When I was at school I was interested in everything. I thought at one time I wanted to be an Egyptologist because I like puzzles, I think. I think that’s really what it is, solving puzzles or solving a language. But I read called a book called Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif, which is a very well known book in which he writes about Pasteur and Koch. So I thought I would like to be a microbiologist. I was good at all the subjects in school, everything, languages, mathematics and science. Didn’t do much science at school, but enough to interest me.

So I decided the only way you could become a microbiologist was to do medicine, which was the only way in those days. So I went to the University of Witwatersrand to do medicine. In fact, I was an exact contemporary of Sydney Brenner. We were in the same class at medical school. He came from a different town. But after a while, although I liked biochemistry and physiology and histology, I got bored with anatomy, dissecting. So I gave up medicine and I moved to then (?) chemistry and mathematics and eventually physics. And I graduated in chemistry, physics and mathematics. Only two were necessary, but I did three.

Then I went to Capetown. I was interested in the structure of matter. And I’d been doing some x-ray crystallography with a man called R.W. James who had been a colleague of Bragg at Manchester. That’s Lawrence Bragg. I developed one or two new things in crystallography. So basically I came to Cambridge. Bragg wanted me to work on silicate structures. I wanted to join the MRC [Medical Research Council] unit of Perutz, but they were full. At least they said they were full. So I didn’t join that. So I did a doctorate, a Ph.D. in solid state physics on phase transformations in solids. It didn’t lead anywhere, but it was interesting. It was a very good preparation in terms of general preparation; I learned how to—I understood a lot of chemistry, materials science. I learned how to compute. I did all that sort of thing.

Then I decided to go back to biological structures and try to do that through crystallography. I got a fellowship to work on protein structure in London at Birkbeck College. There unknown to me was Rosalind Franklin who had just left Kings college to go to Birkbeck College where Bernal, J.D. Bernal, who is really one of the founders of molecular biology was there. I had a fellowship—I was supposed to be working on protein structure, but my supervisor, or rather not my supervisor, my sponsor, a man called Carlyle, was trying to solve a protein structure, ribonuclease, that had not be solved at that time. This was 1953, ‘54.So I had my own fellowship and so I parted company with him. Rosalind showed me some of her x-ray photographs of tobacco mosaic virus. There were some problems she couldn’t understand, so I interpreted them mathematically. So after that I got interested in virus structure. Virus structure was a pretty good thing. First of all, experimentally, many physicists hate the ideas of anything wet and sloppy. I had been a medical student and done physiology (???) so I didn’t mind that so I could make virus preparations. I did some theoretical work. People say I’m a theoretician, but that’s not totally true. I understand the experiments and can do them and did do them, so although I can do the mathematical analysis and indeed one of the things from my Nobel Prize was the fact that I worked out how to build up a picture, three-dimensional picture out of two-dimensional projections, which later became the basis of x-ray CAT scanner. I introduced this in the field of electron microscopy and it’s called electron crystallography, electron—excuse me

(telephone rings)

Aaron Klug is chemist and biophysicist and winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry. After completing his BSc at University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, he attended the University of Cape Town on scholarship where he received M.Sc. degree. In 1949 he moved to Cambridge in England, he studied molecular structure of steel and wrote a thesis on the changes that occur when molten steel solidifies, for which he earned Ph.D. in 1952.

In 1953 he obtained a fellowship to work at Birkbeck Collage in London, where he met Rosalind Franklin. They worked together to determine the structural nature of the tobacco mosaic virus. After Franklin's death in 1958 he continued his work on viruses together with Kenneth Holmes and John Finch. In 1962 he accepted a position at Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.

His major contribution to scientific research was the development of crystallography electron microscopy for which he was awarded Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1988.

More Information: Wikipedia, Nobelprize.org

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