Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Book review: Architects of Structural Biology

Arpan K. Banerjee
Solihull, United Kingdom

Cover of Architects of Structural Biology by John Meurig Thomas.

Modern twenty-first-century high-technology medicine, which we now take for granted, was only made possible by remarkable advances in the physical and biological sciences of the twentieth century. In Architects of Structural Biology, the contributions of four scientific giants and Nobel laureates—Lawrence Bragg, Max Perutz, John Kendrew, and Dorothy Hodgkin—are described by a former Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, himself an eminent chemist and historian of science. The author’s personal knowledge of the scientists adds a unique dimension to this document, which discusses the major scientific discoveries in molecular biology in the twentieth century and the personalities behind them.

The book is beautifully written and illustrated. It explains the scientific contributions of the physicist W.L. Bragg and X-ray crystallography, which paved the way for structural analysis of many important biological molecules. Max Perutz and his studies on the structure of hemoglobin, John Kendrew and his work on myoglobin, and Dorothy Hodgkin and her work on X-ray crystallography to elucidate the structure of penicillin and vitamin B12 are all described.

The role of the Cambridge Laboratory of Molecular Biology in making many of these advances (twelve Nobel Prizes) is noted. The author’s personal acquaintance with the scientists results in the stories behind the discoveries being brought to life with anecdotes and biographical sketches. We learn about Louise Johnson’s work on lysozyme; Archer Martin, the first Peterhouse man to win a Nobel Prize in 1952 for partition chromatography; H. (Tiny) Powell and his pioneering work on clathrates and fluency in seventeen languages; and other remarkable characters. The rivalry between Bragg and Linus Pauling is described, showing how scientific rivalries can fuel discoveries. We learn about the restless polymath John Bernal, who fell afoul of his boss because of his behavior but nevertheless made remarkable contributions to a wide range of topics in structural molecular biology.

In addition to the contributions of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, the book covers the work done at the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory and the work done to popularize science at the Royal Institution in London, which continues to this day with its Christmas lectures amongst other activities.

More recent achievements of the laboratory include work done by Aaron Klug on virus structure and analysis of filaments in Alzheimer’s disease; Milstein and Kohler’s monoclonal antibody research; and Greg Winter’s work on monoclonals leading to the development of new drugs (Nobel Prize in 2018).

This book is a history of the glory days of advances in molecular biology of the last century. The science is clearly explained, without too much complex jargon. It is a superb chronicle of an extraordinary era of scientific and medical advances made by scientists of outstanding talent, to whom we remain indebted.

Architects of Structural Biology
John Meurig Thomas
OUP 9780198854500

ARPAN K. BANERJEE, MBBS (LOND), FRCP, FRCR, FBIR, qualified in medicine at St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School. London. He was a consultant radiologist in Birmingham from 1995–2019. He served on the scientific committee of the Royal College of Radiologists 2012–2016. He was Chairman of the British Society for the History of Radiology from 2012–2017. He is Treasurer of ISHRAD and adviser to Radiopaedia. He is the author/co-author of numerous papers and articles on a variety of clinical medical, radiological, and medical historical topics and seven books, including Classic Papers in Modern Diagnostic Radiology (2005) and The History of Radiology (OUP 2013).

Fall 2020



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