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Max Delbruck: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from the University of Memphis, M.S. from the University of Virginia, and B.S. from Mississippi State University. She has over 10 years of experience developing STEM curriculum and teaching physics, engineering, and biology.

Max Delbruck was a German-American scientist who was one of the pioneering researchers in molecular biology. In this lesson, learn more about his interesting life and his many contributions to science.

The Birth of Molecular Biology

Can ideas and techniques from physics and chemistry help scientists to understand the nature of life? Today, most people would agree that there is a lot of overlap between all these branches of science, but it wasn't always that way.

Back in the early part of the twentieth century, our understanding of biology was growing by leaps and bounds. A few visionary scientists thought that even more could be learned by working at the interface between biology, physics, and chemistry, and they were right!

Molecular biology is the branch of science that science that seeks to understand biology at a molecular level. Molecular biologists study molecules like DNA and proteins to try to understand how they interact with each other to create and maintain life.

It was a relatively new science that only began around 1930 when physicists and chemists began to apply their skills to biology. One of these groundbreaking scientists was a German-American physicist named Max Delbruck.

Max Delbruck was a scientist who helped found the science of molecular biology in the early twentieth century.
Max Delbruck

Early Life of Max Delbruck

What led Max Delbruck to become a scientist, and then a founding pioneer of molecular biology? It all started when he was very young.

Delbruck was born in Berlin, Germany in 1906. His family had been involved in academic research for generations, and he grew up in a neighborhood filled with other scientists, academics, and professionals. His father, Hans Delbruck, was a very successful history professor at the University of Berlin and his great-grandfather was the famous chemist Justus von Liebig.

As a child, Delbruck became interested in science, particularly astronomy. He attended the University of Göttingen, and originally planned to study astrophysics. However, while he was a student, many breakthroughs were being made in the new and exciting field of quantum mechanics. Göttingen was a center of quantum mechanics research, so Delbruck decided to change his focus to theoretical physics so he could be part of this exciting new work.

He graduated with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics in 1929. He spent the next three years working in England, Germany, and Switzerland, which would have a profound impact on the rest of his life.

Turning to Biology

It was during this time that he met the famous scientists Wolfgang Pauli and Niels Bohr. Bohr first sparked Delbruck's interest in biology when he suggested that recent discoveries in quantum mechanics might possibly be applied to other fields like biology.

Even though he did not have a background in biology, this possibility fascinated Delbruck right away. He was fascinated by genetics, saying, ''Any living cell carries with it the experience of a billion years of experimentation by its ancestors.''

He wanted to use his understanding of how atoms and molecules interact with each other to explain the nature and function of genes. He would devote the rest of his life to this quest.

Other Scientists and Locations

He decided to move back to Berlin in 1932 to work with the physicist Lise Meitner. He hoped that the proximity of so many research institutes in and around Berlin would help facilitate the kind of interdisciplinary work he wanted to do.

Soon a small group of physicists and biologists, including Delbruck, began to meet and collaborate, and they published a paper together in 1935 that helped to popularize the new science of molecular biology.

In 1937, Delbruck received a fellowship from the Rockefeller foundation that enabled him to move to America and gave him the time and resources to really begin to pursue his interests in biology. He first worked at Cal Tech, studying the genetics of fruit flies, and then moved to Vanderbilt University in 1939 to continue his work in molecular biology. He would return to Cal Tech in 1947 and remain there until he retired.

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