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Max Delbrück

Max Delbrück

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Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück (September 4, 1906 – March 9, 1981) was a German-American biophysicist and Nobel laureate
Nobel Prize
The Nobel Prizes are annual international awards bestowed by Scandinavian committees in recognition of cultural and scientific advances. The will of the Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, established the prizes in 1895...

.

Biography


Delbrück was born in Berlin
Berlin
Berlin is the capital city of Germany and is one of the 16 states of Germany. With a population of 3.45 million people, Berlin is Germany's largest city. It is the second most populous city proper and the seventh most populous urban area in the European Union...

, German Empire
German Empire
The German Empire refers to Germany during the "Second Reich" period from the unification of Germany and proclamation of Wilhelm I as German Emperor on 18 January 1871, to 1918, when it became a federal republic after defeat in World War I and the abdication of the Emperor, Wilhelm II.The German...

. His father was Hans Delbrück
Hans Delbrück
Hans Delbrück was a German historian. Delbrück was one of the first modern military historians, basing his method of research on the critical examination of ancient sources, the use of auxiliary disciplines, like demography and economics, to complete the analysis and the comparison between...

, a professor of history
History
History is the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about past events. History can also mean the period of time after writing was invented. Scholars who write about history are called historians...

 at the University of Berlin, and his mother was the granddaughter of Justus von Liebig
Justus von Liebig
Justus von Liebig was a German chemist who made major contributions to agricultural and biological chemistry, and worked on the organization of organic chemistry. As a professor, he devised the modern laboratory-oriented teaching method, and for such innovations, he is regarded as one of the...

.

Delbrück studied astrophysics
Astrophysics
Astrophysics is the branch of astronomy that deals with the physics of the universe, including the physical properties of celestial objects, as well as their interactions and behavior...

, shifting towards theoretical physics
Theoretical physics
Theoretical physics is a branch of physics which employs mathematical models and abstractions of physics to rationalize, explain and predict natural phenomena...

, at the University of Göttingen. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1930, he traveled through England
England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

, Denmark
Denmark
Denmark is a Scandinavian country in Northern Europe. The countries of Denmark and Greenland, as well as the Faroe Islands, constitute the Kingdom of Denmark . It is the southernmost of the Nordic countries, southwest of Sweden and south of Norway, and bordered to the south by Germany. Denmark...

, and Switzerland
Switzerland
Switzerland name of one of the Swiss cantons. ; ; ; or ), in its full name the Swiss Confederation , is a federal republic consisting of 26 cantons, with Bern as the seat of the federal authorities. The country is situated in Western Europe,Or Central Europe depending on the definition....

. He met Wolfgang Pauli
Wolfgang Pauli
Wolfgang Ernst Pauli was an Austrian theoretical physicist and one of the pioneers of quantum physics. In 1945, after being nominated by Albert Einstein, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his "decisive contribution through his discovery of a new law of Nature, the exclusion principle or...

 and Niels Bohr
Niels Bohr
Niels Henrik David Bohr was a Danish physicist who made foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum mechanics, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922. Bohr mentored and collaborated with many of the top physicists of the century at his institute in...

, who got him interested in biology
Biology
Biology is a natural science concerned with the study of life and living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, origin, evolution, distribution, and taxonomy. Biology is a vast subject containing many subdivisions, topics, and disciplines...

.

Delbrück went back to Berlin in 1932 as an assistant to Lise Meitner
Lise Meitner
Lise Meitner FRS was an Austrian-born, later Swedish, physicist who worked on radioactivity and nuclear physics. Meitner was part of the team that discovered nuclear fission, an achievement for which her colleague Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize...

, who was collaborating with Otto Hahn
Otto Hahn
Otto Hahn FRS was a German chemist and Nobel laureate, a pioneer in the fields of radioactivity and radiochemistry. He is regarded as "the father of nuclear chemistry". Hahn was a courageous opposer of Jewish persecution by the Nazis and after World War II he became a passionate campaigner...

 on the results of irradiating uranium with neutrons. During this period he wrote a few papers, one of which turned out to be an important contribution on the scattering of gamma rays by a Coulomb field due to polarization of the vacuum produced by that field (1933). His conclusion proved to be theoretically sound but inapplicable to the case in point, but 20 years later Hans Bethe
Hans Bethe
Hans Albrecht Bethe was a German-American nuclear physicist, and Nobel laureate in physics for his work on the theory of stellar nucleosynthesis. A versatile theoretical physicist, Bethe also made important contributions to quantum electrodynamics, nuclear physics, solid-state physics and...

 confirmed the phenomenon and named it "Delbrück scattering
Delbruck scattering
Delbrück scattering, the deflection of high-energy photons in the Coulomb field of nuclei as a consequence of vacuum polarization has been observed. However, the process of scattering of light by light, has not been observed...

".

In 1937, he moved to the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 to pursue his interests in biology, taking up research in the Biology Division at Caltech on genetics
Genetics
Genetics , a discipline of biology, is the science of genes, heredity, and variation in living organisms....

 of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster
Drosophila melanogaster
Drosophila melanogaster is a species of Diptera, or the order of flies, in the family Drosophilidae. The species is known generally as the common fruit fly or vinegar fly. Starting from Charles W...

. While at Caltech Delbrück became acquainted with bacteria
Bacteria
Bacteria are a large domain of prokaryotic microorganisms. Typically a few micrometres in length, bacteria have a wide range of shapes, ranging from spheres to rods and spirals...

 and their viruses (bacteriophage
Bacteriophage
A bacteriophage is any one of a number of viruses that infect bacteria. They do this by injecting genetic material, which they carry enclosed in an outer protein capsid...

 or 'phage'). In 1939, he co-authored a paper called The Growth of Bacteriophage with E.L. Ellis in which they demonstrated that virus
Virus
A virus is a small infectious agent that can replicate only inside the living cells of organisms. Viruses infect all types of organisms, from animals and plants to bacteria and archaea...

es reproduce in "one step", rather than exponentially as cellular
Cell (biology)
The cell is the basic structural and functional unit of all known living organisms. It is the smallest unit of life that is classified as a living thing, and is often called the building block of life. The Alberts text discusses how the "cellular building blocks" move to shape developing embryos....

 organisms do.

In 1941, he married Mary Bruce, with whom he had four children. Delbrück's brother Justus Delbrück, a lawyer, his sister Emmi Bonhoeffer and his brothers-in-law Klaus Bonhoeffer
Klaus Bonhoeffer
Klaus Bonhoeffer was a German jurist and resistance fighter against the Nazi régime who was executed after the July 1944 plot to kill Hitler....

 and Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian and martyr. He was a participant in the German resistance movement against Nazism and a founding member of the Confessing Church. He was involved in plans by members of the Abwehr to assassinate Adolf Hitler...

) were heroes in the German Resistance against the Nazi
Nazism
Nazism, the common short form name of National Socialism was the ideology and practice of the Nazi Party and of Nazi Germany...

 Regime. Klaus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were executed in the last days of Hitler's Germany.
Delbrück remained in the US during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, teaching physics at Vanderbilt University
Vanderbilt University
Vanderbilt University is a private research university located in Nashville, Tennessee, United States. Founded in 1873, the university is named for shipping and rail magnate "Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt, who provided Vanderbilt its initial $1 million endowment despite having never been to the...

 in Nashville
Nashville, Tennessee
Nashville is the capital of the U.S. state of Tennessee and the county seat of Davidson County. It is located on the Cumberland River in Davidson County, in the north-central part of the state. The city is a center for the health care, publishing, banking and transportation industries, and is home...

 while pursuing his genetic research. In 1942, he and Salvador Luria of Indiana University demonstrated that bacteria
Bacteria
Bacteria are a large domain of prokaryotic microorganisms. Typically a few micrometres in length, bacteria have a wide range of shapes, ranging from spheres to rods and spirals...

l resistance to virus
Virus
A virus is a small infectious agent that can replicate only inside the living cells of organisms. Viruses infect all types of organisms, from animals and plants to bacteria and archaea...

 infection is caused by random mutation
Mutation
In molecular biology and genetics, mutations are changes in a genomic sequence: the DNA sequence of a cell's genome or the DNA or RNA sequence of a virus. They can be defined as sudden and spontaneous changes in the cell. Mutations are caused by radiation, viruses, transposons and mutagenic...

 and not adaptive change. This research, known as the Luria-Delbrück experiment
Luria-Delbruck experiment
The Luria–Delbrück experiment demonstrates that in bacteria, genetic mutations arise in the absence of selection, rather than being a response to selection. Therefore, Darwin's theory of natural selection acting on random mutations applies to bacteria as well as to more complex organisms...

, was also significant for its use of mathematics to make quantitative predictions for the results to be expected from alternative models. For that work, they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine administered by the Nobel Foundation, is awarded once a year for outstanding discoveries in the field of life science and medicine. It is one of five Nobel Prizes established in 1895 by Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, in his will...

 in 1969, sharing it with Alfred Hershey
Alfred Hershey
Alfred Day Hershey was an American Nobel Prize-winning bacteriologist and geneticist.He was born in Owosso, Michigan and received his B.S. in chemistry at Michigan State University in 1930 and his Ph.D. in bacteriology in 1934, taking a position shortly thereafter at the Department of Bacteriology...

. In the same year together with Salvador Luria he was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize
Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize
Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize for Biology or Biochemistry is an annual prize awarded by Columbia University to a researcher or group of researchers that have made an outstanding contribution in basic research in the fields of biology or biochemistry....

 from Columbia University
Columbia University
Columbia University in the City of New York is a private, Ivy League university in Manhattan, New York City. Columbia is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York, the fifth oldest in the United States, and one of the country's nine Colonial Colleges founded before the...

.

In 1947, Delbrück returned to Caltech as a professor of biology where he remained until 1977.

From the 1950s on, Delbrück applied biophysical methods to problems in sensory physiology
Physiology
Physiology is the science of the function of living systems. This includes how organisms, organ systems, organs, cells, and bio-molecules carry out the chemical or physical functions that exist in a living system. The highest honor awarded in physiology is the Nobel Prize in Physiology or...

 rather than genetics. He also set up the institute for molecular genetics
Molecular genetics
Molecular genetics is the field of biology and genetics that studies the structure and function of genes at a molecular level. The field studies how the genes are transferred from generation to generation. Molecular genetics employs the methods of genetics and molecular biology...

 at the University of Cologne
University of Cologne
The University of Cologne is one of the oldest universities in Europe and, with over 44,000 students, one of the largest universities in Germany. The university is part of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, an association of Germany's leading research universities...

.

Dr. Max Delbrück, one of the foremost pioneers of modern molecular genetics, died on the evening of Monday, March 9, 1981, at the Huntington Memorial Hospital, Pasadena, California, at the age of 74. At that time, he was the Board of Trustees Professor of Biology emeritus at the California Institute of Technology. Delbrück was one of the most influential people in the movement of physical scientists into biology during the 20th century. Delbrück's thinking about the physical basis of life stimulated Erwin Schrödinger
Erwin Schrödinger
Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrödinger was an Austrian physicist and theoretical biologist who was one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, and is famed for a number of important contributions to physics, especially the Schrödinger equation, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933...

 to write the highly influential book, What Is Life?
What is Life? (Schrödinger)
What Is Life? is a 1944 non-fiction science book written for the lay reader by physicist Erwin Schrödinger. The book was based on a course of public lectures delivered by Schrödinger in February 1943, under the auspices of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies at Trinity College, Dublin...

. Schrödinger's book was an important influence on Francis Crick
Francis Crick
Francis Harry Compton Crick OM FRS was an English molecular biologist, biophysicist, and neuroscientist, and most noted for being one of two co-discoverers of the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953, together with James D. Watson...

, James D. Watson
James D. Watson
James Dewey Watson is an American molecular biologist, geneticist, and zoologist, best known as one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA in 1953 with Francis Crick...

 and Maurice Wilkins
Maurice Wilkins
Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins CBE FRS was a New Zealand-born English physicist and molecular biologist, and Nobel Laureate whose research contributed to the scientific understanding of phosphorescence, isotope separation, optical microscopy and X-ray diffraction, and to the development of radar...

 who won a Nobel prize for the discovery of the DNA double helix. Beginning in 1945 Delbrück developed a course in bacteriophage genetics at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is a private, non-profit institution with research programs focusing on cancer, neurobiology, plant genetics, genomics and bioinformatics. The Laboratory has a broad educational mission, including the recently established Watson School of Biological Sciences. It...

 to encourage interest in the field. Delbrück's efforts to promote the "Phage Group
Phage group
The phage group was an informal network of biologists centered around Max Delbrück that contributed heavily to bacterial genetics and the origins of molecular biology in the mid-20th century. The phage group takes its name from bacteriophages, the bacteria-infecting viruses that group used as...

" (exploring genetics by way of the viruses that infect bacteria) was important in the early development of molecular biology
Molecular biology
Molecular biology is the branch of biology that deals with the molecular basis of biological activity. This field overlaps with other areas of biology and chemistry, particularly genetics and biochemistry...

. On 26–27 August 2006, what would have been his 100th birthday celebration, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory hosted a meeting of Delbrück's family members and friends to reminisce about the life and work of Delbrück.

See also

  • Luria-Delbrück experiment
    Luria-Delbruck experiment
    The Luria–Delbrück experiment demonstrates that in bacteria, genetic mutations arise in the absence of selection, rather than being a response to selection. Therefore, Darwin's theory of natural selection acting on random mutations applies to bacteria as well as to more complex organisms...

  • Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize
    Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize
    Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize for Biology or Biochemistry is an annual prize awarded by Columbia University to a researcher or group of researchers that have made an outstanding contribution in basic research in the fields of biology or biochemistry....

  • Max Delbruck Prize
    Max Delbruck Prize
    The Max Delbruck Prize, formerly known as the Biological physics prize, is awarded by the Division of Biological Physics of the American Physical Society, to recognize and encourage outstanding achievement in biological physics research. The prize was established in 1981, and renamed for Max...

    , formally known as the biological physics prize, awarded by the American Physical Society
    American Physical Society
    The American Physical Society is the world's second largest organization of physicists, behind the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft. The Society publishes more than a dozen scientific journals, including the world renowned Physical Review and Physical Review Letters, and organizes more than 20...

  • Saffman–Delbrück model
    Saffman–Delbrück model
    The Saffman–Delbrück model describes a lipid membrane as a thin layer of viscous fluid, surrounded by a less viscous bulk liquid. This picture was originally proposed to determine the diffusion coefficient of membrane proteins, but has also been used to describe the dynamics of fluid domains...


External links