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Max Delbrück at Vanderbilt            1940-1947

When World War II began in 1939, Max Delbrück had been working for two years at Caltech under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation.  Upon the expiration of the Rockefeller fellowship that same year, he sought other means of remaining in the United States, and through the combined efforts of the Foundation and Vanderbilt, a position in the University’s Department of Physics was funded.  Delbrück taught and had an office in Physics, but his lab was located in the Biology Department.  It was there that he continued the work begun at Caltech that led to the 1969 Nobel Prize (with Salvador Luria and Alfred Hershey) in Medicine or Physiology “for their discoveries concerning the replication mechanism and the genetic structure of viruses”

Max Delbrück and  the  Next 100 Years of Biology,

the Max Delbrück Vanderbilt Centenary Celebration,

the Inaugural Vanderbilt Discovery Lecture, was held

September 14, 2006

Delbrück met Luria in early 1941, and their collaborations, along with those of what became the “phage group,” began that summer at Cold Spring Harbor  In the fall of 1942, Luria came to Nashville for the first of several visits, and Hershey, who was at Washington University, began to visit the following year.  Luria’s and Delbrück’s seminal paper in bacterial genetics, “Mutations of Bacteria from Virus Sensitivity to Virus Resistance,” was published in Genetics in 1943.

Delbrück was not only the intellectual leader of the phage group, but the organizer while at Vanderbilt of a number of formal and informal symposia and courses, including a series of lectures to the faculty of the School of Medicine in April and May of 1944, “Problems of Modern Biology in Relation to Atomic Physics”  [  12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, Summary, Addendum, Literature  Full Document ].  In his concluding remarks, he set forth the character of modern biological research:

The status of biology may be likened to that of physics around 1890.  The separate branches of classical physics, i.e., mechanics, optics-electromagnetism, thermodynamics, seemed to have reached their final formulation.  There seemed to be no hope of progressing further to an understanding of the structure of the atom.  The discoveries of radioactivity, of x-rays, and of the electron, all in the 1890’s, completely changed the situation.  The partition between these branches, as well as that between physics and chemistry, was broken down, and the common basis of all, atomic physics, was rapidly constructed.

Perhaps we are approaching a similar phase in biology.  Genetics, embryology, biochemistry, and physiology may find a common root in a fundamental theory of the organization of the cell.  It would seem that the principles of atomic physics will have a large share in the construction of this “modern biology.”

After the war ended, Delbrück proposed to the Vanderbilt administration the establishment of an institute for studying phage, with an initial price tag of $500,000, more than the total budget of the Natural Science Division and impossible for the University to fund.  From among a number of offers from other universities, in late 1946 Delbrück accepted a professorship at Caltech, where he remained until his death in 1981

Robert T. Lagemann wrote about Max Delbrück at Vanderbilt in To Quarks and Quasars, A History of Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt University, 2000.

In 2006, a plaque was commissioned and installed at the site of Delbruck's laboratory in Buttrick Hall.  See the Vanderbilt Register Story.

Max Delbruck and the new perception of biology

In 2007, as a period or maybe an exclamation point to end a year of celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Max Delbrück's birth, a book of personal remembrances given by the scientific community and family at the celebration held at the University of Salamanca, Spain, in October 2006 was published: Max Delbrück and the new perception of biology, edited by Walter Shropshire, Jr.

The book includes a chapter on Max Delbrück's years at Vanderbilt

Max at Vanderbilt
David F. Salisbury
Allison Price
Robert D. Collins
John P. Wikswo