Max Delbruck

If there is one field of science that really fascinates people, it has to be the field of biology. There are just so many things to learn and understand about it that it has tons of secrets that are yet to be discovered still. There are many great names in the field of biology and biophysics but one name you should never forget is Max Delbruck. He has made tons of contributions to the field of molecular biology and he really is worth getting to know. In the late 1930s, it was Max Delbruck that helped set up the molecular biology and research program. What he did was he stimulated the physical scientists’ interest directly into biology with an extra focus on basic research just so they can better explain and understand genes. At that time, genes were considered mysterious so anything that gave them greater understanding was welcome.

Max Delbruck, together with Alfred Hershey and Salvador Luna, formed the Phage Group in 1945. The Phage Group was quite successful and managed to make massive discoveries towards explaining some vital aspects of cell physiology. In 1969, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to the three for their work concerning the replication mechanism and genetic makeup of viruses.

Max Delbruck was also the person who predicted the Delbruck Scattering.


Early Life

Max Delbruck hailed from Berlin, German Empire where he was born in 4th September 1906. His father was Hans Delbruck who taught History at the University of Berlin and his mother was none other than the granddaughter of eminent chemist Justus von Leibig. He grew up in Grunewald which was a suburb in Berlin populated by moderately affluent families. He grew up surrounded by members of the professional, academic, and merchant communities many of whom were large families. He grew up during a period of affluence and warm hospitality before the year 1914 but the latter years were marred with death, hunger, and cold. It was then followed by a period of inflation, impoverishment and revolution. His interest in science was evident even during his boyhood when he had in interest in astronomy.

Max Delbruck left Nazi Germany in 1937 and moved on to California then Tennessee. He married May Bruce and had 4 children in 1941 then went on to become a US citizen in 1945. Considering he grew up when Nazism was strong in Germany it seems odd that he would go to the US and even become a citizen there; however, he wasn’t the only one in his family that had strong feelings about what the regime was up to.

Max Delbruck had a brother named Justus, a lawyer, and a sister named Emmi Bonhoeffer and they happened to be very active in resisting the Nazi regime. Emmie Bonhoeffer not only aided refugees but she also made it a point to teach anti-Nazi education.

In fact, his brothers-in-law Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Klaus Bonhoeffer were in on the resistance too. They were tried by the People’s Court for having roles in a 20th July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. They were found guilty then executed by the RSHA in 1945.

Education and Early Career

Max Delbruck went to the University of Gottingen where he studied astrophysics first then moved on to theoretical physics. He earned his Ph.D. in 1039 then made the move to England then Denmark, and Switzerland after. It was during this time that he met with two other great names in Biology: Neils Bohr and Wolfgang Pauli. It was meeting these two men that got Delbruck interested in biology.

The year 1932 saw Delbruck returning to Berlin to work as an assistant to Lise Meitner who was at that time collaborating with Otto Hahn. Their work concerned using neutrons to irradiate uranium. During his stint with Meitner, Delbruck wrote several papers including one on gamma rays written in 1933. It concerned the scattering of gamma rays by vacuum caused by Coulomb field’s polarization. Theoretically speaking, it was tenable though the conclusion was misplaced. It was Hans Bethe who confirmed the phenomenon some 20 years later and gave it the name “Delbruck Scattering.”

He attained a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1937. At that time, it was launching the molecular biology research program to find out more about fruit fly genetics and the studies were conducted in the California Institute of Technology. It was during this time that Delbruck had the chance to blend genetics and biochemistry. While he was at Caltech, he also had the chance to research bacteria and the viruses they carried. During the year 1939, he co-authored The Growth of Bacteriophage with E.L. Ellis. It was a paper concerned with reporting how viruses reproduce in one step and not like cellular organisms that did it exponentially.

His role with the Rockefeller Foundation ended in 1939 but the Foundation still matched him with the Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and from 1940 to 47 he had the opportunity to teach physics. His lab was still located in the Department of Biology.

Delbruck met Salvador Luria from Indiana University in 1941 when the later paid a visit to Vanderbilt University and together, they published material on bacterial resistance to virus infection by way of random mutation. Alfred Hershey, who was from Washington University, started visiting in 1943.

His Later Life and Legacy

During his later years Delbruck focused on helping to spur the interest of physical scientists in biology. In fact, Erwin Schrodinger relied on his inferences on the susceptibility of genes to mutation when he wrote his book What is Life? In the year 1977, he retired from his teaching spot in Caltech though he the Professor of Biology Emeritus status.

Max Delbruck left the world at the ripe old age of 74 on 9th March 1981. He died in Pasadena California at Huntington Memorial Hospital. The year Delbruck would have turned 100, on the 26th to 27th of August 2006, his friends and family came together at Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory to remember his life and work.