Ernst Peter Fischer on Max Delbruck: An Intellectual among the Biologists
  Ernst Peter Fischer     Biography    
Recorded: 23 Jun 2000

I mean in a sense he was, I mean, in various ways he was different from other molecular biologists. I mean he was—maybe you could call him the intellectual among the biologists.

First of all his entrance into biology is from the theoretical point of view. Not from an experimental point of view. He was always—he had contacts first then experiments later. It’s completely the other way around with Barbara McClintock. With Barbara McClintock, it’s organisms first, and then theory later. Max never! It’s all just theory first and then experiments later.

And then the experiment didn’t confirm the theory, forget about the experiment. Stick to your theory.

I mean he loved theories, he loved to ask abstract notions and that’s why Barbara McClintock actually told him that he doesn’t understand his organisms. Because he had a theory first and then takes a look at the organisms. And so that’s the way the organisms had a good chance to fool him. She told me that he—Max was fooled by phycomyces. I mean he was not fooled by phage, but phage is of course not clever. But as soon as the organism can grow and sense something and maybe have even sex then he comes and fools Max.

And so that might be true. But of course this is a more difficult situation, but Max never thought of being—falling in love identifying an organism. No there was just something which you can use to make a theory about.

So as I leave a phycomyces, you must make a theory about adaptation or theory about some perception the beginning to learn more about the beginning of perceptions. So there was theory first.

Ernst Peter Fischer, Professor of the History of Science at the University of Constance since 1994. He studied mathematics and physics in Cologne and biology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He earned Ph.D. in biology and qualified as a professor in the history of science.

He has published biographies of Max Delbrück, Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli and James D. Watson and received several awards for his scientific publications. Fischer is an author of such books as "Die andere Bildung", "Selling science - The history of Boehringer Mannheim" and "Das Genom" - an introduction into modern genome research.

He has been honoured with the Heinrich-Bechold-Medaille (1980), Preis der wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft Freiburg (1981); Lorenz-Oken-Medaille (2002), Treviranus-Medaille (2003) and Eduard-Rhein-Kulturpreis (2003).