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I arrived in Cambridge in the fall of 1951 sensing a majesty of place and intellectual style unmatched anywhere in the world. The city’s great university, reflecting almost 900 years of English history, is centered on the banks of the River Cam, whose modest waters move northeast across East Anglia to the market city of Ely. Ely’s massive 12th-century cathedral had long towered over the vast flat fenland marshes that emptied into the still 40 miles of river from Cambridge to the shallow waters of the Wash, the estuary over which tides from the North Sea still roar twice daily. It was the draining over many centuries of the fens that created the rich agricultural fields and wealth of the great East Anglia estate owners. Their benefactions in return helped create along the “backs” of the Cam the many elegant student residences, dining halls, and chapels that already many centuries ago marked out Cambridge as a market city of extraordinary grace and beauty.

For most of its history, Cambridge University was highly decentralized, with teaching carried out exclusively by the residential colleges, among which Trinity was long the grandest, having enjoyed the matchless patronage of Henry VIII. In a room off the great court had lived the young Newton, whose greatest science was done in his 20s and 30s before he went up to London to be master of the mint.

Until the mid-18th century, the primary role of the colleges was to educate clergy for the Church of England, a mission carried out by fellows (dons) who were themselves required to remain unmarried while part of college life. Only in the 19th century did science become an important part of the Cambridge teaching scene. Charles Darwin’s serious excitement about natural history and geology came from his exposure in the early 1830s to these disciplines at Christ’s College. Over the next half-century, the responsibility for instruction increasingly shifted away from the colleges to newly created academic departments under university control. In 1871, the duke of Devonshire, Henry Cavendish, donated funds for the creation of the Cavendish Laboratory and the appointment of the first Cavendish Professor: James Clerk Maxwell, whose eponymous equations first unified the dynamics of electricity and magnetism. Upon Maxwell’s early death at age 49 in 1879, the 29-year-old John William Strutt (Lord Rayleigh), famed for his ideas on optics, became the second Cavendish Professor of Physics. In 1904, he was to win a Nobel Prize, as would the next four successors to the chair: J. J. Thomson (1906), Ernest Rutherford (1908), William Lawrence Bragg (1915), and Nevill Mott (1977).

By the start of the 20th century, Cambridge stood out as one of the world’s leading centers for science, of the same rank as the best German universities–­Heidelberg, Göttingen, Berlin, and Munich. Over the next 50 years, Cambridge would remain in that ­rarefied league, but Germany would be ­supplanted by the United States, much strengthened by its absorption of many of the better Jewish scientists forced to flee Hitler. England similarly benefited from the arrival of some extraordinary Jewish intellectuals. If Max Perutz had not had the good sense to leave ­Austria in 1936 as a young chemist, there would have been no reason for my now moving to the banks of the Cam.

Though winning the great struggle against Hitler had drained England financially, the country’s intellectuals took pleasure in knowing that victory had been much of their own making. Without the physicists who provided radar for British aviators during the Battle of Britain, or the Enigma code breakers of Bletchley Park who successfully pinpointed the German U-boats assaulting the Allies’ Atlantic convoys, things might have turned out very differently.

Emboldened by the war to think expansively, the then tiny Medical Research Council (MRC) Unit for the Study of Structure of Biological Systems was doing science in the early 1950s that most chemists and biologists thought ahead of its time. Using x-ray crystallography to establish the 3-D structure of proteins was likely to be orders of magnitude more difficult than solving the structures of small molecules like penicillin. Proteins were daunting objectives, not only because of size and irregularity but because the sequence of the amino acids along their polypeptide chains was still unknown. This obstacle, however, was likely soon to be overcome. The biochemist Fred Sanger, working less than half a mile away from Max Perutz and John Kendrew at the MRC lab, was far along the path to establishing the amino acid sequences of the two insulin polypeptides. Others following in his steps would soon be working out the amino acid sequences of many other proteins.

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Credit: Andreas Feininger/Time-Life Pictures/Getty Images

Tagged: Biomedicine

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