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Realising a European vision




Heidelberg, 24 March 2017 – EMBO co-founder John Kendrew would have celebrated his 100th birthday today. Georgina Ferry looks back at his role in the organisation’s history.




The creation of EMBO was a collaborative effort involving scientists from all over Europe (and even beyond). Yet both the archival record and the recollections of those who participated make it clear that one man played the pre-eminent role: Sir John Cowdery Kendrew, born 100 years ago on 24 March 1917.


An acclaimed scientist


Kendrew had achieved international distinction when, in 1959, he obtained the first high-resolution structure of the protein myoglobin using X-ray crystallography. He was then at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Research Unit for Molecular Biology, headed by Max Perutz, at the University of Cambridge. In 1962 he and Perutz, who had solved the structure of haemoglobin, shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.


The MRC recognised these ground-breaking achievements by creating the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), with Perutz as Chairman and Kendrew as head of the Structural Studies division. Perutz and Kendrew were never the most comfortable of colleagues, as Sydney Brenner (who headed the Cell Biology division with Francis Crick) remembered: “I think [Kendrew] was frustrated in Cambridge… I think he thought he'd do a much better job than Max at organising the LMB.” Kendrew had begun to take more interest in administrative roles than bench science. In 1959 he had founded the Journal of Molecular Biology, and in 1962 he became deputy scientific adviser to the UK’s Ministry of Defence.


“Who is John Kendrew?”


Meanwhile, prompted by the American physicist Leo Szilard, Viktor Weisskopf at CERN in Geneva was envisaging a new lab (‘CERB’), on the same site, that would bring together the best European biologists. When Crick declined an approach to lead it, Weisskopf consulted Brenner. “I told him that he should talk to John Kendrew,” said Brenner. “And he said, ‘Who is John Kendrew?’ And of course they quickly found out who John Kendrew was.” As well as being a Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist, Kendrew was steeped in European culture and spoke Italian, German and French: to run his own lab was a cherished dream.


Kendrew visited Weisskopf in December 1962. With him was Jim Watson. “John Kendrew's driving force, I am sure, must have been that [the laboratory] would possibly provide a position for him,” said Watson. “Because John had a very mixed feeling about the life of the Cambridge don.”


From scepticism to driving force


This meeting catalysed the chain of events that eventually brought EMBO into being.[1] Szilard immediately perceived a problem: “Since it would be very awkward for Kendrew to be a frank candidate for the directorship and to also be the prime mover in England,” he confided to Weisskopf, “either we must find someone else in England… or else Kendrew will have to play it coy.”[2] Kendrew found a new leader for British interests in the Edinburgh geneticist Conrad Waddington – who, far from being Kendrew’s mouthpiece, disliked the idea of CERB.


Instead Waddington proposed an organisation (which would become EMBO) that would promote communication between European institutions through elected membership, postdoctoral placements and courses. “I must confess I am not very enthusiastic about it myself”, wrote Kendrew to a colleague. “On the other hand, people like Waddington, Buzzati and Kellenberger like it much more than CERB and indeed would not be sorry to see CERB dropped altogether.”[3]


Kendrew adroitly obtained the agreement of the group that met at Ravello in September 1963 to pursue both proposals under the EMBO banner. They established an executive committee chaired by Max Perutz (who was also not keen on the idea of a lab), with the Rome-based American Jeffries Wyman as Secretary General. Kendrew secured for himself the chair of a subcommittee on a future laboratory.


Laying the foundations for EMBL


There followed five years of diplomacy to establish secure funding for EMBO via the European Molecular Biology Conference (EMBC), an organisation of contributing member countries. “Kendrew was the one who had the interest in it, he had the high level governmental contacts”, said Ray Appleyard, the first Executive Secretary of EMBO. The EMBC also agreed to provide a framework for the establishment of EMBL, despite opposition from much of the British scientific establishment.[4] Kendrew became its first Secretary General; in 1969 he also succeeded Wyman as Secretary General of EMBO.


EMBL was eventually successfully established, not in Geneva but in Heidelberg, in late 1973, and Kendrew was confirmed as its Director General. In 1974, the EMBO executive committee voted by a small margin to rotate offices after two three-year terms. Kendrew had to stand down as Secretary General both of EMBO and of EMBC, which was upsetting to him. “John was left with the EMBL, which is what he had wanted from the very beginning,” said John Tooze, who had succeeded Appleyard as EMBO Executive Secretary in 1973. “But he didn’t want to give up the other things.” At EMBL Kendrew helped to shape the laboratory’s research direction: he hired the first wave of group leaders and oversaw the construction of the labs, beginning to establish the character of the institution that exists today.


Kendrew was a hard man to fathom, emotionally reticent unless crossed, yet capable of exercising great charm. He was knighted in 1974, and remained Secretary General of EMBL until 1981, when he had (very reluctantly) to stand down under the rotation of offices rule. He returned to England, holding the presidency of St John’s College, Oxford until 1987. He died in 1997, aged 80.



[1] Ferry, G. EMBO in perspective: A half-century in the life sciences. EMBO, 2014

[2] Szilard, L to Weisskopf, V, 21 January 1963, copy in Kendrew papers, Bodleian Library, Oxford MS. Eng. C. 2418, NCUACS F.1

[3] Kendrew, J to Engström, A, 30 August 1963, Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS. Eng. c. 2418, NCUACS F.4

[4] Anonymous, ‘The EMBO Question Debated’, 1 November 1969, Nature, vol. 224, p. 406.



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