Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico
Walter Gratzer ;

The eloquent Professor Gratzer

Professor Simon Hughes

MRC Scientist and Professor of Developmental Cell Biology, Randall Centre for Cell and Molecular Biophysics

28 October 2021

The history of science is often told through the lives of giants, a narrative that neglects the contribution of an army of brilliant people upon whose shoulders the giants stand. Professor Walter Gratzer, who died on 20 October 2021 at the age of 89, was an undecorated but important officer in that army.

Gratzer was an archetypal English gentleman and among the last of a generation of scientists with first-hand experience of the arc of European twentieth century history, in both politics and science. Walter was born in 1932 in the city of Breslau, Germany, which is now Wroclaw in Poland, into a modestly affluent Jewish family of the former Austro-Hungarian empire. Breslau was an early target of the Third Reich, and Walter and his parents escaped via Czechoslovakia and Gydnia to Britain in 1939, never to see most of their relatives again. Despite internment in the Isle of Man, he became immersed in Britain, lost his accent, the umlaut from his name and, like so many refugees, most of his regrets. He read Chemistry at Oxford University and, after National Service as an officer in the RAF, he went straight into a PhD inspired - like Perutz, Crick and Watson before him - by the possibility of understanding life at the molecular level. He lived to see this dream substantially realised.

The great theme of ‘molecular biology’, that branch of science that commenced with the description of the protein alpha-helix and DNA double helix, has been the use of physical and chemical methods to illuminate the structures underpinning biology and their transformations. At the heart of molecular biology has been RNA: the key intermediate in Francis Crick’s ‘Central Dogma of Biology’ that information passes from DNA to RNA to protein. To understand RNA, its various species, their function and their relationships to protein had to be defined. This was the theme of Gratzer’s early experimental career. For his PhD he had worked with Gilbert Beaven at the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill on diversity of haemoglobin proteins. At that time the importance of RNA became apparent, and in a postdoctoral period with Paul Doty at Harvard he learnt nucleic acid biochemistry. Shortly after the discovery of RNA diversity, Gratzer helped develop gel electrophoresis to separate RNA forms based upon their size. While large forms are best separated on agarose gels, small forms like tRNAs and the plethora of other more recent discoveries are better separated on polyacrylamide gels, a method introduced by Gratzer. During the 1960s he went on to use physical biochemical approaches to illuminate the structure of the ribosome, the molecular machine responsible for translating the code recorded in the DNA sequence into protein. He analysed the dynamics and chemistry of myosin, the first motor protein discovered. With his long-term colleague, Jenny Pinder, he showed that messenger RNA is longer than it needs to be to encode its protein. Thereafter, his research interests returned to proteins, particularly to the cytoskeleton, a network of proteins that allows red blood cells, for instance, to withstand being squeezed through capillaries and becomes defective in certain diseases of blood and muscle.

Gratzer W.2004-Randall-Staff_

Professor Gratzer in 2004

Gratzer’s contribution to science went far beyond his research output; writing was his strength and recreation. Nothing gave him more pleasure than a euphonious sentence. The breadth of his knowledge was extraordinary. As the first, and uncredited, molecular biology news correspondent appointed by Nature magazine, he helped his friend John Maddox steer that journal into its current form, pre-eminent among reliable science news outlets. Who but Gratzer could amuse while reviewing a weighty multi-author volume on the arid topic of the ‘Structure and Stability of Macromolecules’? After enumeration of the strengths of the various chapters take this, as a vignette of his acerbic yet felicitous style, from the final paragraph:

While turning the pages of a learned journal some time ago, I was transfixed by a graph bearing along its ordinate the legend "Relative turgidity". I understand that this is a parameter well known to botanists, but some such scale might provide the breakthrough that is needed in the field of the scientific book review."– Review on 'Structure and Stability of Macromolecules', published in Nature

A polymath comfortable with the abstractions of physics, chemistry and the complexity of biology, Gratzer advised Nature on topics to highlight, books to review and obituaries to print; through much of the ‘70s and ‘80s weekly strolls between Nature’s offices off The Strand and this eminence grise in Drury Lane lugging a suitcase of manuscripts were the rule. In retirement, he turned to popular science, writing books full of erudition and humour on Nutrition and Giant Molecules. But his true passion was for the process of science, its characters and the contributions of chance and personality to progress. He edited the Longman Literary Companion to Science (1989), A Beside Nature (1996), The Oxford Book of Scientific Anecdotes (2002) and a book ‘The Undergrowth of Science’ subtitled ‘Delusion, Self-Deception and Human Frailty’ (2000) which shone with the delight he took in the human side of science. The elegance and clarity of his writing was, and remains, a joy. As a raconteur, whether in print or in person, he was second to none. Personally knowing a large part of the scientific community helped. Perhaps generous and modest to a fault, he was never happier than when supporting and guiding friends, students and colleagues.

Gratzer spent almost his entire career working in Medical Research Council labs, from 1963 in the MRC Biophysics Unit and Biophysics Department at King’s, which he viewed as a privilege.  Together with Professor Hannah Gould, to whom he was married for 58 years, he was thus among the last to have worked with characters from the DNA story, such as Sir John Randall and Maurice Wilkins, whose eccentricities he delighted to recount.  Never happier than with a book, a glass of quality wine and his beloved opera, Walter was gracious host, mentor, storyteller and discerning critic of arts and science.  When the campaign of molecular biology in the late 20th century is surveyed, Gratzer’s role as participant foot-soldier, guiding strategic officer and chronicler of both its glorious and tortuous advances will come to light.

Latest news