Delbrück, Max.

Alternative names
Birth 1906-09-04
Death 1981-03-09

Biographical notes:


Max Delbrück was born in Berlin in 1906, the youngest member of a large, intellectual family. His father was professor of history and his uncle professor of theology at the University of Berlin. Seeking his own identity in a highly distinguished family, Delbrück decided to study astronomy during high school. He continued his studies at the universities of Tübingen, Bonn and Berlin. He intended to do his dissertation at Göttingen in astronomy, but switched to theoretical physics. He worked under Max Born as a teaching assistant while doing his research under W. Heitler, and received his doctorate in 1930.

Delbrück went to Bristol in 1929 to work with J. E. Lennard-Jones. He returned to Göttingen to take his oral exams, which he passed only on his second attempt. He later admitted that he had not bothered to study for them the first time. During 1931-1932, he studied with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, and W. Pauli in Zurich, courtesy of a Rockefeller Fellowship. Bohr, in particular, had a major influence on Delbrück, and provoked his interest in biology with the claim that the complementarity principle of quantum mechanics could be applied to other sciences, especially biology.

Upon his return to Berlin, he worked for five years as Lise Meitner's assistant at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. In 1937, he came to the California Institute of Technology on a Rockefeller Foundation grant. He selected Caltech because of biologist T. H. Morgan's work with drosophila genetics, but was soon working with E. L. Ellis on bacteriophage.

Delbrück had already learned that his academic progress would be hampered in Germany by his antipathy to Nazism, and by 1940 the worsening political situation reinforced his decision to remain in the United States. With the help of the Rockefeller Foundation, which paid half of his salary so he could continue his research, he moved to the physics department at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. At this time, he met and began his collaboration with A. D. Hershey, then at Washington University in St. Louis, and S. E. Luria, then at Columbia University in New York. The three men were pioneers in the field of molecular genetics, and in 1969 they shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for the work they had done during the 1940s.

In 1941, Delbrück began his forty-year association with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. In the course of those years he gave papers, taught classes, and organized and attended meetings. He also inspired other scientists, not only with his specific interests but with his spirit of enthusiasm and camaraderie.

He returned to Caltech in 1947 as professor of biology. During the fifties, his interest in phage and molecular genetics gave way to an interest in phycomyces and the sensory transduction of signals, an interest that persisted throughout his life.

Delbrück left Caltech briefly on two occasions. From 1961-1963, he organized the Institute of Genetics at the University of Cologne in Germany. And in 1969, he helped organize the natural science faculty at the new University of Konstanz, where he returned regularly as guest professor.

In 1977, Delbrück retired from his position as Albert Billings Ruddock Professor of Biology and was named Board of Trustee Professor Emeritus in recognition of his achievements and his desire to continue his research.

On March 9, 1981, Max Delbrück died at the age of 74. Though he had been ill for some time before his death, he was in the midst of writing an autobiography, as well as preparing a lecture to be delivered at the Poetry Center in New York titled, "Rilke's Eighth Duino Elegy and the Unique Position of Man." At a memorial service held at Caltech, he was remembered as friend, scientist, philosopher, and humanist. To varying degrees, all these aspects of Max Delbrück are illustrated in his collected papers.

From the guide to the Max Delbrück papers, 1918-1997, (California Institute of Technology. Caltech Archives.)


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