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Collection Level Description: Correspondence and papers of Sir John Cowdery Kendrew

Reference: MSS. Eng. b. 2010-2018, c. 2385-2611, d. 2105-2223, e. 2317-2358
Title: Correspondence and papers of Sir John Cowdery Kendrew
Dates of Creation: 1927-1988
Extent: 397 boxes
Language of Material: English

Administrative/Biographical History

John Cowdery Kendrew was born in Oxford on 24 March 1917. He was educated at the Dragon School, Oxford, (1923-1930), and Clifton College, Bristol, (1930-1936). In 1936 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge as a Major Scholar, reading chemistry, physics, biochemistry, and advanced mathematics (the latter two as half subjects) for the first part of the natural sciences tripos, and chemistry for the second. In June 1939 he graduated with First-Class Honours in chemistry and immediately began research in reaction kinetics in the Department of Physical Chemistry, under E.A. Moelwyn-Hughes.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Kendrew was encouraged to continue his research, but he was eager to contribute to the war effort. In early 1940 he was appointed Junior Scientific Officer at the Air Ministry Research Establishment, and worked on the development of airborne radar. In September 1940 he was attached to the staff of Sir Robert Watson-Watt for operational research duties, with special reference to anti-submarine warfare, bombing accuracy, and radio aids. Most of his war service was spent abroad: in Cairo with the Middle East Command and then in India and Ceylon with the South-East Asia Command, where he was officer in charge of operational research and Scientific Adviser to the Allied Air Commander-in-Chief.

Wartime travels and encounters were to have major effects on his future career. J.D. Bernal, whom he met in Cairo, India, and Ceylon, persuaded him of the importance of research into protein, and this was reinforced by a meeting with L.C. Pauling in the course of a roundabout journey home via Australia and America in the spring of 1945. Though he hesitated for some time and explored the possibility of remaining in Government service to continue operational research and planning for peacetime policies, he decided to return to Cambridge.

In September 1945, having been awarded an ICI research fellowship, Kendrew began a collaboration with M.F. Perutz at the Cavendish Laboratory. They started investigating the structure of haemoglobin, embarking on a comparison of foetal and adult haemoglobin. This work gained him his Ph.D. in 1949. From the beginning, however, they also attempted the crystal analysis of myoglobin, the protein responsible for oxygen storage in muscle. This project was hampered by the difficulty of growing crystals of a size suitable for X-ray analysis. Protein crystallography in the Cavendish, under the guidance of W. Lawrence Bragg, was put on a more secure footing by the creation, in 1947, of the Medical Research Council unit for the molecular structure of biological systems. After exploring many possible problems and materials Kendrew chose myoglobin and in particular sperm-whale myoglobin as the most suitable for analysis by X-ray crystallography; he and his collaborators eventually succeeded in producing a three-dimensional model at a resolution of 6-Å in 1957 and 2-Å in 1959. The crystallographic calculation for both models relied decisively on the use of the first electronic digital computers built at Cambridge, EDSAC I and II, of which Kendrew made pioneering use. This work gained Kendrew, jointly with Perutz, the 1962 Nobel prize for chemistry, the same year that F.H.C. Crick and J.D. Watson (both of the MRC Unit) shared the Prize in Physiology or Medicine with M.H.F. Wilkins for the determination of the structure of DNA.

Alongside the laboratory work, Kendrew had maintained his links with university life principally through Peterhouse, which had welcomed him during the early postwar years as a Research Fellow 1947-1953 and later as a Supernumerary Fellow. He was Director of Studies in Natural Sciences for many years, with responsibility for the selection and tuition of undergraduate members, as well as holding several College offices. He later became an Honorary Fellow of Peterhouse, as also of his undergraduate college, Trinity.

From the late 1950s Kendrew became more involved in scientific matters in the wider world. He was a founding member and first Honorary Secretary of the British Biophysical Society; in 1959 he undertook the Editorship of the new Journal of Molecular Biology, which he retained until 1987; he was Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser in the Ministry of Defence 1960-1963; and he served on committees and advisory boards of the Royal Society where he had been elected to the Fellowship in 1960. With the award of the Nobel Prize this involvement gained momentum and an altogether new dimension in international terms with the development of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) and its Laboratory (EMBL).

Many other commitments to national and international science policy also belong to these years. In Britain they include service on the Council for Scientific Policy and chairmanship of some of its committees and working parties 1964-1972, service on the Defence Scientific Advisory Council 1969-1974, continuing service on the Council and other committees of the Royal Society and on other learned societies, in particular the British Biophysical Society and the Institute of Biology. Examples of increasing involvement in international science and scientific policy can be seen in his appointment as Governor of the Weizmann Institute, Israel, in 1964 and the Vice-Presidency and Presidency of the International Union of Pure and Applied Biophysics 1964-1972.

During the 1960s Kendrew continued his research on myoglobin, refining the resolution to 1.4-Å and determining the co-ordinates of virtually all the 2500 atoms in the molecule. In the later 1960s, however, his other commitments increasingly absorbed his time and energy and his official move to Heidelberg as Director-General of EMBL in 1975 marked the end of his active research. The creation of the EMBL as a physical entity, and more importantly as an international centre of excellence where several teams and research projects could co-exist and collaborate was a lasting achievement. In addition, or in consequence, Kendrew's diplomatic skills, mastery of detail and experience in chairmanship made him constantly in demand on a wider stage. He served, often as chairman, on the scientific councils or advisory boards of laboratories or research institutions in Naples, Basel, Brussels, Stockholm, Heidelberg and others, on various UNESCO committees, and on many electoral boards for honours and appointments in Britain and abroad. His formal association with science at the international level may be said to have culminated in his service with the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) as Secretary-General 1974-1980 and President 1983-1988.

Kendrew's original contract of secondment from the Medical Research Council and appointment as Director-General of the EMBL was renewed twice, until 1982, when he retired on reaching the age of 65. His last appointment brought him back to Oxford, where he served as President of St. John's College until 1987. He died of cancer in Cambridge on 23 August 1997.

Scope and Content

The collection contains:

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The material was received from Kendrew at various dates between April 1987 and April 1989.

Access Conditions

Entry to read in the Library is permitted only on presentation of a valid reader's card (for admissions procedures see

Finding Aids

A fuller description and detailed index are available in the Library and at The National Archives.

Access Points


Kendrew | John Cowdery | 1917-1997 | molecular biologist

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