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Obituary: Sir Aaron Klug OM FRS

11 August 1926 – 20 November 2018

The Nobel Prize winner Sir Aaron Klug, who was a Fellow of Birkbeck and carried out ground-breaking research at the College, died on 20 November 2018, aged 92.

Klug was born in Lithuania to Jewish, Yiddish-speaking parents, and moved to South Africa at the age of two, where relatives of his mother lived. He undertook undergraduate and postgraduate study in South Africa – first enrolling to study medicine at the University of Witwatersrand before his shifting interests led him to a degree in pure science. He then moved to the University of Cape Town to pursue a master’s in physics, followed by a PhD at Cambridge.  

After he was refused a visa to the United States in 1952, Klug returned to Britain to continue his research. He came to Birkbeck in 1954, where a chance meeting with Rosalind Franklin led to a collaboration that set the direction of Klug’s subsequent career. Franklin shared with Klug her X-ray crystallography images of viruses, which Klug found fascinating. Franklin’s experimental skills and Klug’s strong theoretical mind proved the ideal combination for driving forward progress in unravelling virus assemblies, including greatly advancing knowledge of the structure of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus. The two continued to collaborate at Birkbeck, until Franklin’s premature death from ovarian cancer in 1958.

In 1962, Klug returned to Cambridge, taking up a post at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), of which he became director in 1986. Combining 2D electron microscope images taken from different angles, Klug developed techniques that could reveal the complete atomic structure of a molecule or biological complex. He used this technique to uncover the complexes of protein and nucleic acid in viruses and, in 1982, was the sole recipient of the Nobel Prize in chemistry for this work. His work in this area paved the way for recent major developments in electron microscopy as a central tool in structural biology.

During his tenure as Director of the LMB, Klug was well-known for supporting female scientists. He also championed highly ambitious, large-scale projects, notably the genome sequencing of the nematode worm.  He also had a key role in establishing the Wellcome Sanger Institute, which carried out around one third of the sequencing in the Human Genome Project.

Klug was knighted in 1988, and appointed to the Order of Merit in 1995, the same year that he became President of the Royal Society. During the five years of his leadership there, the Royal Society steered the scientific community through several controversial issues, including the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and its transmission to humans; the Human Genome Project; and debates around genetically-modified food. Klug recognised the importance of the scientific community engaging with the public and did much to advance the Royal Society’s work in this area.

Klug was elected a Fellow of Birkbeck in 1994.

Klug is survived by his wife Liebe and son David. Another son, Adam, died in 2000.