Delbrück, Max (1906–1981)

Citation metadata

Date: 2007
Encyclopedia of World Scientists, Rev. ed.
Publisher: Facts On File
Series: Facts on File Science Library
Document Type: Biography
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 5)

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About this Person
Born: September 04, 1906 in Berlin, Germany
Died: March 10, 1981 in Pasadena, California, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Molecular biologist
Other Names: Delbruck, Max
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Page 176

Delbrück, Max (1906–1981)

German/American
Molecular Biologist

Max Delbrück is recognized as the founder of molecular biology and molecular genetics. Although he discovered important phenomena, such as the spontaneous mutation of bacteria to become immune to bacteriophages, he exerted even more influence by inspiring other scientists. His collaborative work on bacteriophages, or viruses that infect bacteria, with ALFRED DAY HERSHEYand SALVADOREDWARD LURIAearned the trio the 1969 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Page 177  |  Top of Article

Delbrück was born on September 4, 1906, in Berlin, Germany, the youngest of seven children. His father, Hans Delbrück, was a professor of history at the University of Berlin and editor of the journal Prussian Yearbook, and his mother was Lina Thiersch, granddaughter of Justus von Liebig, who was considered the founder of organic chemistry. Delbrück married Mary Adeline Bruce in 1941, and the couple had four children—two sons, Jonathan and Tobias, and two daughters, Nicola and Ludina. In 1945 Delbrück became a U.S. citizen.

In 1924 Delbrück enrolled in the University of Tübingen, but he transferred first to the University of Bonn before receiving his Ph.D. in physics in 1930 from the University of Göttingen. He started his dissertation on the origin of a type of star, but he then switched topics to the differences in bonding of two lithium atoms, as opposed to the much stronger bonding of two hydrogen atoms. Delbrück performed postdoctoral studies under a research grant at the University of Bristol in England focusing on quantum mechanics. A Rockefeller Foundation postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Copenhagen allowed him to continue his postdoctoral studies under NIELS HEN- DRIK DAVID BOHR.

From 1932 through 1937 Delbrück served as a research assistant to LISE MEITNERat the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin. A second Rockefeller Foundation fellowship allowed him to travel in 1937 to the United States, where he resided for the rest of his life. From 1937 through 1981 he served on the faculty of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, with a stint at Vanderbilt University between 1940 and 1947. In 1945 he commenced his tradition of offering annual summer courses on bacteriophages at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.

In 1939 Delbrück discovered a one-step process by which bacteriophages multiplied exponentially within one hour. In 1943 he helped organize the Phage Group, which included both Hershey and Luria, and the members began to meet together informally to discuss bacteriophages. That year Delbrück and Luria jointly published “Mutations of Bacteria from Virus Sensitivity to Virus Resistance,” an article that represents the genesis of bacterial genetics. The next year the Phage Group drew up the Phage Treaty of 1944, which standardized bacteriophage research. In 1946 he and Hershey independently discovered that different kinds of viruses can combine genetically to create new forms of viruses. In 1947 at the request of George Beadle, head of the biology department at Caltech, Delbrück accepted a position there. By 1950 his interests began to shift away from phage and toward sensory physiology, though he did help launch the next wave of viral genetics—tumor virology. Delbrück died on March 10, 1981, in Pasadena, California.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX4065100224