Max Ludwig Henning Delbruck gets a virus

In what has to be one of the best titles for a paper ever submitted for publication – “The Sword and the Armour: science and practice in the brewing industry 1837–1914”, Ray Anderson, writing in the summer 2006 edition of Brewery History, the journal of Britain’s Brewery History Society, discusses the competition between Germany and Britain in the international beer market.

“At the German Brewing Congress of June 1884,” Anderson writes, “the redoubtable Max Delbruck, director of the Experimental and Teaching Institute for Brewing in Berlin, announced that ‘With the sword of science and the armour of practice, German beer will encircle the world’.

It was no idle boast. In 1887 beer output in the German states exceeded that in the UK for the first time and Germany became the largest producer of beer in the world.”

The “redoubtable Max Delbruck” referred to by Anderson is Max Emil Julius Delbruck, born in Bergen auf Rugen, Germany, on 16 June 1850.

He’s not to be confused with his more famous nephew, Max Ludwig Henning Delbruck, born in Berlin on 4 September 1906 – winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with Salvador Luria and Alfred Hershey, “for their discoveries concerning the replication mechanism and the genetic structure of viruses”.

That’s not to say uncle Max was a slacker when it came to science.

Jay Brooks, whose blog “Brookston Beer Bulletin” is dedicated to the art of brewing, says Delbruck spent 45 years in the fermentation industry, “establishing a school for distillation workers, a glass factory for the manufacture of reliable apparatus and instruments, and an experimental distillery”. 

He says Delbruck “founded teaching and experimental institutions to improve cultivation of potatoes and hops”, and “researched physiology of yeast and application in the process of fermentation, production of pure cultures, and the action of enzymes”.

His older brother was Hans Delbruck – not the one referred to by Mel Brooks in his 1974 film Young Frankenstein as a “scientist and saint” – but the renowned military historian Hans Gottlieb Leopold Delbruck, born in Prussia on 11 November 1848.

Hans’ son was Max Ludwig Henning Delbruck, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist.

In the October 2007 edition of the journal Genetics, Ernst Peter Fischer says Delbruck “played a crucial role in getting molecular biology as we know it on its successful way. Thus, in the 1940s, after emigrating to the United States, he started a new science”.

Astronomy was Delbruck’s first interest in science, but, by the mid-1920s, the newly discovered field of quantum mechanics had captured his imagination, especially a 1925 paper by German theoretical physicist Werner Karl Heisenberg.

Fischer says that in 1926, Heisenberg came to Berlin to give a seminar, and that Delbruck attended, which inspired him to take up studies in quantum theory. 

At Germany’s University of Gottingen, the global centre of quantum studies, Delbruck became a graduate student of renowned physicist Max Born, and completed a PhD in 1929.

While travelling in Denmark, Delbruck came into contact with Niels Bohr, one of the foremost physicists of the 20th century, and winner of the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The Nobel organisation’s biography of Delbruck says Bohr “shaped his attitude towards the pursuit of truth in science”.

“Delbruck’s interest in biology was first aroused by Bohr, in connection with his speculations that the complementarity argument of quantum mechanics might have wide applications to other fields of scientific endeavor and especially in regard to the relations between physics and biology.” 

In 1937 Delbruck was given a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to work and study at the California Institute of Technology, in southern California.

At Caltech he began researching bacteriophages – viruses that infect bacteria – and In 1939 he and Emory Ellis coauthored the paper “The growth of bacteriophage”, in which they reported that: “Certain large protein molecules (viruses) possess the property of multiplying within living organisms. This process, which is at once so foreign to chemistry and so fundamental to biology, is exemplified in the multiplication of bacteriophage in the presence of susceptible bacteria.” 

In 1939 Delbruck moved Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee, where he taught physics and researched biology until 1947.

While at Vanderbilt he met Salvador Luria, an associate professor of bacteriology at Indiana University, and Alfred Hershey, from Washington University School of Medicine.

In reporting on the trio’s prize-winning work, the Nobel organisation says bacteriophages “are viruses that attach themselves to bacteria, emptying their genetic material into them, which leads to the rapid spawning of new phage inside the bacteria.

“By applying genetic concepts and developing statistical approaches in their studies of bacteriophages, Delbruck, Luria, and Hershey were able to shed new light on a range of unanswered questions within genetics … [they] proved through statistical investigations that bacteria, like more complex organisms, develop via mutations.”

Ernst Peter Fischer, who, along with Carol Lipson wrote the 1995 book Thinking About Science: Max Delbruck and the Origins of Molecular Biology, says Delbruck “discovered – with a little help from a lot of friends – how to do genetics with bacteria and their viruses (bacteriophages). 

“After 1945 he helped to spread the news by setting up phage courses, still running today, at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York. These activities were instrumental in creating the molecular biology that exploded in the years following the Second World War.”

Delbruck died on 9 March 1981 in Pasadena, California.

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