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Summary Article: Klug, Aaron (1926- )
from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: South Africa

Subject: biography, biology

South African molecular biologist who improved the quality of electron micrographs by using laser light. He used electron microscopy, X-ray diffraction, and structural modelling to study the structures of different viruses (including polio) that are too small to be visible with a light microscope or to be trapped by filters. He received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1982.

Klug was born in Zelvas, Lithuania on 11 August 1926 to Lazar and Bella Klug. The family emigrated to Durban, South Africa, where members of his mother's family had settled when he was two years old. Attending Durban High School, the young Aaron was not interested in any subject in particular but he read widely. Inspired by Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters (1926) he decided to take up medicine at university. He studied medicine for a year at Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg, taking biochemisty in the second year and finally taking a science degree.

Klug won a scholarship at the University of Cape Town to do research in physics where he was taught by the X-ray crystallographer, R W James, attending his undergraduate lectures as well as his MSc course. He acquired a knowledge of Fourier theory and developed an interest in external and internal conical refraction. Staying on after achieving his MSc in 1947 he worked on the analysis of some small organic compounds and developed a method of using molecular structure factors to solve crystal structures. He also taught himself quantum chemistry and became interested in the organization of the structure of matter.

In 1949 Klug went to the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, England, on another scholarship, where he learnt about computing, solid-state physics, and the notion of nucleation and growth in a phase change. Moving on after his PhD to the Colloid Science department in Cambridge, he showed how the reactions of haemoglobin in contact with oxygen or carbon dioxide could be simulated on a computer. He then obtained a Nuffield Fellowship to Birkbeck College in 1953 starting work in the laboratory of Irish physicist J D Bernal (1901-1971), on the polio virus, becoming a professor in 1954. Shortly after this he met Rosalind Franklin and, inspired by her X-ray photographs, he took up the study of the tobacco mosaic virus with her. Four years later, with research students Kenneth Holmes and John Finch, he had mapped out the structure of the virus. He also published a paper with Francis Crick on diffraction by helical structures.

After Franklin's death in 1958, Klug continued working with Holmes and Finch on spherical viruses and in 1962 he moved as professor to the new MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge working on the formation of the protein units in helical viruses. He was appointed director of the laboratory in 1986.

Klug was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1969, was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in molecular biology, and was knighted in 1988. His many awards include the Heineken Prize, Royal Netherlands Academy of Science (1979); Louisa Gross Horowitz Prize, Columbia University (1981); the Copley Medal (1985) and the Baly Medal (1987). He married Liebe Bobrow, a choreographer he met in Cape Town in 1948 and they have two sons.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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