Brenda Maddox

You Never Know

Max Perutz and the Secret of Life

By

Chatto & Windus 349pp £25 order from our bookshop

This biography ends just the way I hoped it would, with Max Perutz’s closing comment on Desert Island Discs. When in June 2000 Sue Lawley asked the Austrian-born Nobel laureate, then in his late eighties, what luxury he would take to his desert island, he replied: ‘A pair of skis. You never know – it might snow.’

Such merriment, with its Viennese overtones, summed up the remarkable personality of a scientist known for his niceness. Perutz was a Jew, born in 1914 to a family of textile manufacturers, who (like Gustav Mahler) found it useful to be Catholic in an anti-Semitic society. However, baptism did not save him from being thought of as a Jew by his fellow students at the University of Vienna, where he studied chemistry. 

Follow Literary Review on Twitter