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Max Delbrück at VanderbiltMax Delbruck

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”

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". 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. (From the Caltech Archives:

Plaque installed on Delbruck's Laboratory in Buttrick Hall Robert T. Lagemann wrote about Max Delbrück at Vanderbilt in To Quarks and Quasars, A History of Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt University, 2000. Max Delbruck and the new perception of biology

On September 4, 2006, a plaque was commissioned and installed at the site of Delbruck's Vanderbilt laboratory in Buttrick Hall. Read the Vanderbilt Register story online or download a copy.

On September 14, 2006,  Vanderbilt hosted Max Delbrück and the next 100 years of Biology, the Max Delbrück Vanderbilt Centenary Celebration, the inaugural Vanderbilt discovery lecture. 

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.

Max Delbruck plaque with from left to right, John Wikswo, Arnold Levine, Jonathan Delbruck and Sydney Brenner
Pictured with the plaque from left to right -John Wikswo, Arnold Levine, Jonathan Delbruck and Sydney Brenner

The book includes a chapter on Max Delbrück's years at Vanderbilt. Salisburg,DF, Price,A, Collins,RD, Wikswo,JP. Max at Vanderbilt. In: Max Delbrück and the new perception of biology, 1906-1981, Shropshire,W, Jr., ed. AuthorHouse, Bloomington, IN, 213-236, 2007

In 2020, Vanderbilt Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, John Vastola, was a runner-up in the essay contest of the Forum on the History of Physics (FHP) of the American Physical Society, with his essay Who's Afraid of Max Delbrück?