Papers and correspondence of Sir John Cowdery Kendrew, 1917-1997

Scope and Content

Original material: The papers comprehensively document almost all aspects of Kendrew's professional life. There are extensive and systematic records of Kendrew's wide-ranging science education at Clifton and Cambridge, some 9000 manuscript pages of notes not counting notebooks and essays. The topics are scrupulously indexed, there are very full notes of lecture courses and the lecturers are carefully identified and include most of the leading figures in Cambridge science immediately before and after the Second World War. The next group of papers chronicles Kendrew's overseas service and contributions to operational research during the war. A very full record of Kendrew's research is a major component of the papers. It is concerned almost entirely with protein structure analysis, beginning in 1946, and includes the devising of computer programs to process data on EDSAC I and its successors, the years of experimentation with types of myoglobin until in December 1952 sperm-whale emerged as the most promising crystal source and the ensuing protracted work leading to the establishment of contour maps and the final three-dimensional picture at successive Angstrm resolutions. There are notebooks, notes and data, material relating to specimens, apparatus and models, and correspondence with collaborators and colleagues extending over more than twenty years.

The history of European molecular biology for the period 1962-1982 constitutes another major component of the papers. Kendrew's unique place at or near the centre of events makes his record of special value in several regards. It is remarkably complete and contains the early history or 'founding papers' of all three bodies, the Organisation EMBO, Conference EMBC and Laboratory EMBL, many of them in the form of manuscript or informal letters exchanged with distinguished colleagues throughout Europe. In addition, the first Secretary-General of EMBO, J. Wyman, has at Kendrew's request made over his own related papers and correspondence for incorporation in the present collection. All aspects of the European molecular biology movement are covered: negotiations, discussions and agreements at personal, official, national and international level; research projects, membership and elections; building and staffing; budgets, costings and funding; and committees and working parties. There are also Kendrew's own notes of discussions, planning and problems at all stages and especially for the laboratory project.

There are records of the many other British and international societies and organisations with which Kendrew was associated over many years. For the UK there are the 'founding papers' of the British Biophysical Society and the papers of the Council for Scientific Policy, including those of the Working Groups on molecular biology, on the proposal for EMBL and on the Dainton and Rothschild reports on the organisation of research, and the Council's Standing Committee on International Relations; there is also a full record of the High Energy Particle Physics Review Group chaired by Kendrew. On the international scene there are records of Kendrew's extensive service on the councils or advisory boards of institutions and laboratories and of their research programmes. There is good documentation of his long association with the Weizmann Institute, Israel and of his work for the international scientific unions such as Biochemistry (IUB) and Pure and Applied Biophysics (IUPAB) and the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU).

Supplementary material: The papers are mainly the contents of a sequence of folders inscribed by Kendrew 'archives' or 'souvenir papers' which were assembled as a personal record of professional and personal activities over the period 1936-1997. The material comprises Kendrew's personal record of such aspects of his life and career as school and undergraduate days, war service, postwar research at Cambridge, award of the Nobel Prize, the conferral of various honorary degrees and awards, attendance at conferences, involvement with national and international organisations and Presidency of St John's College, Oxford as well as his wide-ranging interest in the arts. Initially several years at a time were covered by an individual folder but from 1963 onwards Kendrew began keeping one folder for each year. There is some correspondence and speech material but the contents of Kendrew's folders were mainly photographs, press cuttings and mementos such as menus, seating plans, invitation cards and programmes for formal dinners and tributes, visits and conferences, honorary degree or awards ceremonies and for theatre, concert and opera performances and art exhibitions. In addition to the folder sequence Kendrew compiled two scrapbooks covering the period 1960-1962 containing letters, photographs and press-cuttings relating to research and other developments at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, the award of the Nobel Prize, and also the death of his parents. There is a folder of cards and letters of congratulation on the occasion of Kendrew's eightieth birthday in 1997.

Administrative / Biographical History

Kendrew was educated at Clifton College, Bristol and Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating with first class honours in chemistry in June 1939 and immediately beginning research on reaction kinetics in the Physical Chemistry Department there. This early research was interrupted by war service with the Air Ministry, much of it spent overseas in Cairo and then India and Ceylon. In 1946 he returned to Cambridge to research on the x-ray crystallographic analysis of protein structure in collaboration with M.F. Perutz and in 1947 the Medical Research Council set up a Unit for the Study of the Molecular Structure of Biological Systems with Perutz and Kendrew as its total staff; this was the origin of the famous Laboratory of Molecular Biology. While Perutz concentrated his efforts on haemoglobin Kendrew undertook long and arduous studies on sperm-whale myoglobin which eventually succeeded in producing a three-dimensional model of the molecule at various Angstrm levels.

From about 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 and in 1959 undertook the editorship of the new Journal of Molecular Biology, which he retained until 1987. From the early 1960s Kendrew was involved at all stages in the development of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO), Conference (EMBC) and Laboratory (EMBL) as member of the EMBO Council, as Chairman of its Laboratory Committee and later its Secretary-General, as Secretary-General of EMBC, and as Project Leader and first Director-General of the EMBL, a position he held until 1982. In Britain he served on the Council for Scientific Policy, 1965-1972, and on the Defence Scientific Advisory Council, 1969-1974, and in the international sphere he was appointed Governor of the Weizmann Institute, Israel in 1964, Vice-President and President of the International Union of Pure and Applied Biophysics (IUPAB), 1964-1972, and Secretary-General and President of the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), 1974-1980 and 1983-1988, respectively. He was President of St John's College, Oxford, 1982-1987. Kendrew was elected FRS in 1960 (Royal Medal 1965) and shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Chemistry with M.F. Perutz for their studies of the structures of globular proteins. He was knighted in 1974.

Kendrew died on 23 August 1997.


By section as follows: Notebooks, notes and essays, Second World War, Research, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge - university and college, European Molecular Biology Organisation, European Molecular Biology Conference, European Molecular Biology Laboratory, UK societies, organisations and consultancies, International societies, organisations and consultancies, Lectures, publications and broadcasts, Journal of Molecular Biology, Visits and conferences, Correspondence, References and recommendations, Biographical. Index of correspondents.

The supplementary material is exclusively Biographical material.

Access Information

Entry permitted only on presentation of a valid reader's card or an Oxford University Card displaying the Bodleian logo. All applicants for new or replacement cards must apply in person, with a recommendation and payment if required, and with proof of their identity.

Some items not available until 2000 or 2010, others for 30 years from date of writing.

Other Finding Aids

Printed Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Sir John Cowdery Kendrew (1917-1997) by J. Alton, NCUACS catalogue nos. 11/4/89, 506 pp and NCUACS supplementary catalogue 78/7/98, 43 pp.

Custodial History

Original material: Received for cataloguing in 1987-1989 by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists from Kendrew. Placed in Bodleian Library (gift) in 1989.

Supplementary material: Received for cataloguing in July 1998 by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists from Sir John Kendrew's executor, Mr J.A. Montgomery, St John's College, Oxford. Placed in Bodleian Library (gift) in 1998.