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.