Max Perutz is known as the “Godfather of Molecular Biology.” While he did receive the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the molecular structure of hemoglobin, he is equally well known as the founder of the most successful biological research laboratory in the world.
Specifically, it was 1947 when he convinced the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) to set up what became the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB). Perutz was the chairman of the LMB from 1962 to 1979, its most illustrious period. This single laboratory has amassed nine Nobel Prize winners, four Orders of Merit awards, and nine Copley Medals (the highest honor awarded by the Royal Society of the UK).
All of this fabulous work came out of the LMB, which had grown to ninety researchers, during Perutz’s tenure. It was during this period that the molecular structure of DNA was discovered by LMB researchers and has been a core foundation element of molecular biology ever since.
How did Perutz get so much innovation out of this laboratory? First of all, he kept the administration of the lab to a bare minimum. In fact, the only other administrative staff member was John Kendrew, Petutz’s first PhD student who would share his Nobel Prize fifteen years later. Here is how Perutz characterized the culture of the LMB: “Creativity and science, as in art, cannot be organized. It arises spontaneously from individual talent. Well run laboratories can foster it, but hierarchical organizations, inflexible bureaucratic rules, and mountains of futile paperwork can kill it. Discoveries cannot be planned; they pop up in unexpected places.”
Sir James Black, a distinguished Scottish pharmacologist summarized it this way: “What you need is highly motivated people picked by a few men of good judgment. No politics, no committees, no press interviews – just the highly talented individuals.”
It’s not surprising that Perutz’s lab became a magnet for the brightest young scientists, who all remarked on his gentleness, tolerance, and appreciation of others.
Another key characteristic of Perutz was to make sure the laboratory was not all about him; he made sure it was about the fabulous researchers in the laboratory. Based on this thinking, he turned down a Knighthood on the grounds that it might inhibit young research staff members from talking to him. He was equally attentive to the work of the youngest and the most senior scientists, all treated with the utmost respect, humanity, and affection. Perutz himself would sometimes quote Albert Schweitzer: “example is not the main thing in influencing others; it is the only thing.”
Stepping back, this story is a great reminder of the fundamentals of how to generate innovation: highly gifted talent, an unencumbered environment, and a value system that is totally focused on great ideas. But… making it happen in an organization is tougher than it sounds.