No. 21/September 4, 2006

MDC Celebrates Centennial of Max Delbrück


Max Delbrück

Max Delbrück in his office in Constance in 1969.

Young Man with Scarf

“Junger Mann mit Schal“ [Young Man with Scarf] (Max Delbrück), c. 1937, tempera on cardboard, Jeanne Mammen Acquired with funds of the German Lottery Foundation Berlin (Photo: Gunter Lepkowski/ Copyright: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

With a festive event, the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) Berlin-Buch (Germany), which was founded in 1992, celebrated the hundredth birthday of Max Delbrück, for whom the Center was named.

Professor Fritz Melchers (Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, Berlin), who completed his PhD under the supervision of Max Delbrück, described the beginnings of molecular genetics in his keynote address in the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Science (BBAW), recognizing the contributions of Max Delbrück as one of the co-founders of this research area.

 

In a second keynote address, Professor Jens Reich (MDC), molecular biologist, physician and former East German dissident, described the difficulties of pursuing research in biology and genetics until 1965 in the GDR, where at that time the world view of the controversial Trofim Lysenko prevailed. Prof. Reich also praised Delbrück’s publications, which avoided convoluted jargon.

 

From the Delbrück family, Hans-Jürgen Delbrück from Ratingen, Germany, and Dr. Sebastian Delbrück (Berlin) of the Delbrück family foundation came to the centennial event. For many years, the Delbrück Foundation, the MDC, and Berlin secondary schools have jointly sponsored young people intending to pursue studies in science. The violinist Mikhail Ovrutsky, a scholarship recipient of the Circle of Friends of the Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation and first concertmaster of the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn, provided the musical program.

 

Max Delbrück showed that bacteria infected by viruses, so-called bacteriophages, spontaneously mutate and, thus, become resistant to the virus infection and do not, for instance, adapt to the viruses, as Prof. Melchers described the significance of Max Delbrück’s work for which he shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine with Salvador Luria and Alfred Hershey in 1969.

 

“Max Delbrück laid the cornerstones for the explosive revolution in biology, which has taught us to comprehend the structure and functions of genes in the diversity of life, for instance in viruses, bacteria, parasites, insects, fish, mammals, and humans,” Prof. Melchers emphasized.

 

With Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, Max Delbrück experienced “a spirit in science” he had “never experienced in Germany: working in a team with independent colleagues. There, young and older scientists from many countries worked on their own or joint projects, so-to-speak without a boss, accountable to themselves.” “The non-hierarchical ‘Copenhagen spirit’ of research, oriented on self-responsibility and self-criticism, made it very easy for science to monitor itself,” Prof. Melchers added.

 

With his four imperatives, Max Delbrück exemplified the high ethical ideals which the institution named after him subscribes to, namely: “(1) the universal validity of findings in scientific research; (2) all discoveries and findings belong to all people; (3) separation of scientific research and insights from their practical results, and; (4) no result will be accepted unless all objections and alternative possibilities have been considered and tested.”

 

“Crystal-clear precision – no convoluted jargon”

Prof. Reich, who never met Max Delbrück personally, pointed out the clarity of Max Delbrück’s writing in his publications. “The common characteristic of Delbrück’s publications is that he introduces the problem with crystal-clear precision, without any convoluted jargon, and always expresses what he is driving at right at the beginning. It all looks so easy.”

 

“But whoever wants to follow Max Delbrück on his way from the problem to the result must be prepared to traverse rugged terrain in a hard intellectual quest. Max Delbrück is a physicist in everything and a pure theorist as well. His experimental achievements seem to have been limited to two left hands in simple tasks as laboratory aide, i.e. as lab assistant to people to whom he always deferred the honor of being the first author, when his publications, as they generally do, report on experimental and theoretical results: Nikolai Timoféeff-Ressovsky for instance …“.

 

The physicist and biologist Max Delbrück is considered to be one of the co-founders of molecular biology. Together with Alfred Day Hershey (Carnegie Institution, Cold Spring Harbor, New York, USA) and Salvador Edward Luria (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA), he received the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1969. The three geneticists were awarded the prize for their discoveries concerning the replication mechanism and the genetic structure of bacteriophages.

 

Max Delbrück was born on September 4th, 1906 in Berlin. He studied in Tübingen, Berlin, Bonn and Göttingen, concentrating first on astronomy, then astrophysics and finally physics. In 1930, he completed his doctorate in Göttingen with a dissertation on a quantum mechanical theory of Max Born. He went to Bristol, England on a Rockefeller Fellowship, then to the physicist and Nobel laureate Niels Bohr in Copenhagen and finally to the University of Zurich to Wolfgang Pauli, who later received the Nobel Prize.

 

Niels Bohr aroused Delbrück’s interest in biology. While he was assistant to Lise Meitner at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin-Dahlem in the 1930s, Max Delbrück concentrated on quantum mechanical models of genes. He collaborated closely on this with the Russian geneticist Nikolai Wladimirovich Timoféeff-Ressovsky, who was working at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research in Berlin-Buch, and with the physicist Karl Günter Zimmer of the radiation department of the Cecilienhaus in Berlin-Charlottenburg. This collaboration resulted in the publishing of "On the Nature of Gene Mutation and Gene Structure" in 1935, which was seminal in the development of molecular biology.

 

In 1937, Max Delbrück received another Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, which he used to pursue research at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California. After the fellowship expired, he became an instructor of physics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1947, he was appointed professor of biology at Caltech. From 1961 to 1963, he was guest professor and director of the Institute for Genetics of the University of Cologne (Germany). In 1969, he came back to Germany again and helped build up the department of biology at the newly founded University of Constance.

 

Max Delbrück, who initially did research in the U.S. on the genetics of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, introduced bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria, as the simplest biological objects in genetic research, thus enabling new methods of access to biology. Together with Hershey and Luria he founded the "phage group".

 

Max Delbrück received numerous awards, including the Gregor Mendel Medal of the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, Halle, in 1967. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Danish Academy, the Royal Society in London and the French Academy of Sciences. Numerous universities awarded him honorary doctorates. He died at the age of 74 on March 9, 1981 in Pasadena, California.

 

Pressestelle
Max-Delbrück-Centrum für Molekulare Medizin (MDC) Berlin-Buch
Robert-Rössle-Straße 10
13125 Berlin
Barbara Bachtler
Tel: 030/94 06 - 38 96
Fax: 030/94 06 - 38 33
e-mail: presse@mdc-berlin.de
http://www.mdc-berlin.de/ueber_das_mdc/presse/index.htm