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Behind the picture: Gisela Perutz and the LMB canteen

Image copyright: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

(Image copyright: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology)

We published an article last week about the central place of the tea or coffee break in scientific progress. In this linked post we’ve raided the photo archives once again to find this picture of Gisela Perutz, who was responsible for setting up the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology’s canteen, the site of many a fruitful conversation. 

This photograph, taken in 1979, shows Gisela Perutz, wife of MRC LMB scientist and Chairman Max Perutz, receiving a bouquet of flowers upon her retirement from the institute’s canteen. This was the site of many celebrations — including a few ‘Nobel parties’ — in its more than 50 years of feeding and watering the institute’s staff.

Gisela was central to the canteen in its first two decades. When the LMB was established in 1962, the researchers moved over from the pre-existing ‘Unit for Research on the Molecular Structure of Biological Systems’ in the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Lab closer to the centre of Cambridge. As well as having the Cavendish coffee room, researchers could more easily nip out together for a bite to eat at places such as The Eagle pub (where Watson and Crick announced in February 1953 that they’d discovered the structure of DNA).

“The new site was in a bit of a desert,” says Max and Gisela’s daughter Vivien Perutz. “Max was keen that there was somewhere for people to go and socialise, and eat reasonably priced, decent food so that they wouldn’t be isolated eating sandwiches in their individual labs.” It is this ‘coffee culture’, with researchers encouraged to share ideas, which has been partly credited with the LMB’s success.

MRC rules at the time stated that a canteen had to be self-financing and that staff members couldn’t set it up, so Gisela offered to assist unpaid. After purchasing the necessary equipment, she continued in a supervisory role until Max’s retirement as Chairman of the lab in 1979. She did the accounts, hired the staff and sourced the food, as well as serving behind the counter. As time went on, she took a more hands-off role. In addition, she trained as a counsellor in 1962-1963 after which she worked on a voluntary basis first for Relate, which was then called Marriage Guidance, and subsequently for a GP practice.

“It was a family concern to make a great success of the LMB, there was a huge amount of personal commitment there. Gisela would do whatever she could in the endeavour to make the lab a success,” says their son Robin Perutz.

“Max was never very good at gossip. By being involved in the canteen, Gisela provided eyes and ears, chatting to people and seeing that it was a happy place to work,” he adds.

Katherine Nightingale

The MRC runs the Max Perutz Science Writing Award for MRC-funded students and fellows in honour of Max’s skills as a communicator. Entries to the competition are open until the 23 June 2013.

*The image used in this article has not been released under our Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported Licence.

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