Obituary: Sir Aaron Klug

Visionary Nobel-Prize winning scientist whose driving force was curiosity


To the uninitiated (that is, most of us) science appears difficult and dry. But scientists, especially great scientists, are able to see beyond the numbers and the equations. For years they doggedly work on apparently insoluble problems chasing the result that might be of benefit to the world.

Sir Aaron Klug, who had died aged 92, was one of these visionaries, described by Venki Ramakrishnam, president of the Royal Society, as “a towering giant of 20th century molecular biology”.

Awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his development of crystallographic techniques that shed light on the molecular arrangement of the chromosome and other molecules, his work also straddled such fields as biology and medicine.

It was Klug’s multi-faceted interests, his ability to bypass boundaries and his intellectual as well as his scientific curiosity that made him such a pioneering scientist.

Aaron Klug was born in Lithuania, the son of Lazar and Bella Silin. Lazar was a trained saddler but worked as a cattle dealer to help his father on the family farm. Realising there wasn’t much of a future for them in Lithuania, in 1929 the family emigrated to Durban, South Africa, where Bella’s extended family, the Gevissers, ran a well-established business.

Although Lazar worked for the family firm as a hide merchant, he was a clever man who regularly attended synagogue and studied the Talmud. Klug would recall that after he moved to England his father used to send him extracts from the Talmud by post.

When Klug was six, his mother died of pneumonia and her younger sister Rose moved in to help bring up Aaron and his older brother Bennie; she would later marry Lazar.

Klug sailed through school and although two years ahead of his peers, he regularly came first in all subjects – except sport. He attended Hebrew classes, was fluent in Afrikaans and excelled at Latin.At one point he became extremely interested in Egyptology and even tried to teach himself hieroglyphics. But then he read about Pasteur and Koch in Microbe Hunters, a book by Dutch science writer Paul de Kruif. It was a turning point and he decided to become a microbiologist.

At 15 Klug went to the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg to study medicine, as there was no medical school in Durban. Uni proved no more of a challenge than high school but by his second year he realised that he found biochemistry far more interesting. He decided to drop medicine and study a range of subjects including chemistry, physiology physics and maths.

After attending a lecture on the Schrödinger wave equation (a theory formulated by Austrian physicist Erwin Shrödinger which describes matter as a wave fluctuating with both displacement and time) Klug opted to do a master’s degree in physics in Cape Town. A man of huge intellectual curiosity who found “everything interesting”, Klug was a voracious reader and, inspired by his supervisor, Professor RW James, who had been a member of Shackleton’s polar expedition, he even applied to the South African Antarctic Survey. He was turned down because he wore glasses.

However, things were happening for him: he met and married Liebe Bobrow, a music student and dancer, and working with Prof James, an eminent X-ray crystallographer, he became intrigued by this discipline. It was also around this time that he developed a strong interest in the structure and organisation of matter.

Thanks to James, in 1949 he obtained a scholarship to Cambridge. His intention was “to do something unusual in X-ray crystallography” and he was hoping to join the MRC unit at the Cavendish Laboratory but it was full. He was set to work on a project on the cooling of steel; rather than feel frustrated, as many would, Klug saw it as a chance to widen his outlook.

But it was his subsequent move to Birkbeck College, London in 1954 and his collaboration with the pioneering X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin on the tobacco mosaic virus (a retrovirus affecting tobacco plants, transmittable through greenhouses) that he would later say, changed his life. He worked with Franklin until her death four years later, developing, among other things, analytical methods for turning the X-ray data into a map.

From Franklin he learnt not just about viruses but also to rein in his curiosity about everything and become more single-minded. She also taught him the importance of tackling difficult problems rather than “publishing clever papers”.

After he moved to Peterhouse, Cambridge as a teaching fellow in 1962, he combined teaching a number of subjects – crystallography, microspectroscopy, chemistry and physics – with his research work. In 1982 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his advancement of crystallographic electron microscopy and his work unraveling complexes of protein and nucleic acids in viruses. He was knighted in 1988 and appointed to the Order of Merit in 1995.

That same year Klug became President of the Royal Society, a position he held for five years. As President he had to deal with a number of issues, such as genetically modified food, the Human Genome Project and the BSE outbreak.

Klug always maintained a strong connection with his Jewish roots, making several visits to Israel, especially Be’er-Sheva and Ben Gurion University, where a research centre is named after him.

By his own admission, Klug never set out to be a benefactor of mankind. His driving force, he confessed, was curiosity. But he added, “it’s not just the thinking, it’s also the doing. You need not just intelligence but also imaginative powers of the what if? kind.”

Sir Aaron Klug is survived by his wife Liebe and son David. Another son, Adam, predeceased him.

Julie Carbonara


Sir Aaron Klug, scientist, born August 11, 1926. Died November 20, 2018.


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