Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Book review: A Place in History: The Biography of John C. Kendrew

Arpan K. Banerjee
Solihull, United Kingdom

Cover of A Place in History: The Biography of John C. Kendrew
by Paul M. Wassarman.

Remarkable scientific advances in the twentieth century were also crucial for the field of medicine. In the new field of molecular biology, for example, scientists applied the principles of physics and chemistry to elucidate the structure of important proteins and molecules in the human body.

John Kendrew was one of the great pioneering scientists in this field. He shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Max Perutz. Kendrew was awarded the prize for elucidating the three-dimensional structure of myoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen in muscles. Perutz won for his explanation of the structure of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in red blood cells. Kendrew and Perutz worked together in the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge, UK beginning in the late 1940s.

This superb biography provides a fascinating insight into the development of the field of molecular biology in the last century. The Laboratory of Molecular Biology started off as essentially a two-man affair in the 1950s and today boasts more than 500 personnel who work out of a new state-of-the-art building in Cambridge. A dozen Nobel laureates and fifty fellows of the Royal Society are among its alumni.

Kendrew was appointed deputy chairman of the laboratory in 1962. He was not only a brilliant scientist but was also an important scientific administrator. He was editor of the major molecular biology journal of the era, an adviser to the British government, and chief adviser to the Ministry of Defence. He was also the first director of the European Molecular Biology Institute in Heidelberg, Germany. He made important contributions to many societies and organizations and finished his career as president of St. John’s College, Oxford. Throughout his career he was showered with awards and honors as befitting a scientist of his caliber.

Kendrew was a difficult man to know personally. Paul Wasserman, who worked as a post-doctoral fellow with Kendrew, provides a glimpse into the life and career of a great pioneer in molecular biology, as well as the lives of other important scientists of that era. This biographical work is comprehensive, well referenced, and contains many photographs, but it is also peppered with anecdotes, making it an interesting read. The appendices include a description of Kendrew’s archives, published obituaries, and papers. The book also boasts a comprehensive bibliography. It is a superb work of scholarship and a fascinating read.

A Place in History: The Biography of John C. Kendrew
Paul M. Wassarman, Oxford University Press, 2020
OUP ISBN 9780199732043

ARPAN K. BANERJEEMBBS (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 Chairman 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).

Spring 2021



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