Max Perutz: moving from Vienna to Cambridge in the mid 1930s

Max Perutz talks about moving from Vienna to Cambridge in the mid 1930s in order to do a PhD.

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I started my chemistry at Vienna University in 1932. In the third year we started to work on organic chemistry.  We had an excellent faculty, and a very very good head of the organic department, a young chemist, Fritz von Wessely. Now, in the first year of organic chemistry, he held a series of lectures, and in those he told us about the discoveries which had been made here in Cambridge of enzymes and vitamins, and I thought it was the most interesting bit of chemistry I had heard about, and none of that was going on in Vienna.  So, I decided Cambridge was the place where I wanted to do my PhD.  And, so at the end of my third year I asked my father if he would let me do my PhD in Cambridge rather than in Vienna. My parents, especially my mother, were very keen that I should enter their textile firm, and they didn’t like the idea at all that it should be deferred for another three years while I did my PhD here. But fortunately, with the help of a young chemist friend, I persuaded them to let me go, and I became a graduate student in crystallography, and I had no idea that this was the best thing I could possibly have done.  Because without X-ray crystallography, I could never have solved the structure of proteins.  But my next problem was to, to be admitted to the university, and I wrote, and was told that I have to join a college.  Whereupon I applied to the best known colleges, Trinity and King’s and St John’s.  And they all turned me down.  And I got fed up and decided I would join, wait till I got here, and then try and do so.  Now, here I found myself some pleasant lodgings in Oldstone Road. Arriving in the train from Dover and going through southern London, was a great disappointment because, it all looked so dismal and rows of dismal, rather neglected-looking houses.  And I thought, my goodness; to us in Vienna, England had been, the golden west.

So you went straight on to Cambridge then.  

I went straight on to Cambridge.  And, then, you know, first day called in the crystallographic laboratory, found that Bernal was away travelling.  And, I was received by three suspicious-looking men who questioned me.  And, one of them barked at me, ‘What’s your religion?’  Now, my father had taught me that, in England you never ask people personal questions, so I was taken aback.  And when I replied, ‘Catholic,’ he barked, ‘Don’t you know that the Pope’s a bloody murderer?’  And it took me some time to realise that, my questioners were all fanatically communists, and they all sort of, went around in un, sort of, fairly shabby, creasy flannels, and, torn tweed jackets.  And I mean, and I was dressed in a, in a rather elegant, grey suit.  And I think they probably regarded me as a, as a sort of, dandy.
  • Interviewee Max Perutz
  • Duration 00:05:03
  • Copyright British Library Board
  • Interviewer Katherine Thompson
  • Date of interview 8/18/2001
  • Shelfmark C464/22

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