Max Rudolf Lemberg 1896-1975

Written by J. Barrett and R.N. Robertson.


Max Rudolf Lemberg, who died on 10 April 1975, was one of the Foundation Fellows of the Australian Academy of Science. Known to a wide circle of friends around the world as Rudi, he was affectionately referred to by his younger Australian colleagues as Lemmy. Born and educated in Germany, he made Australia his home for the latter half of his life and adapted himself well to the ways of his country of adoption. Other accounts of Lemberg's life and influence have appeared elsewhere: his autobiographical chapter written at the invitation of the Annual Review of Biochemistry (1965); Encounter with Rudi Lemberg published privately by his friends (1975); the Royal Society (London) Memoir (1976) compiled by C. Rimington, FRS and C.H. Gray.

Early life

Lemberg was born in Breslau on 19 October 1896, into a cultured, educated family. His father was a leading lawyer specializing in civil law and law was in the family tradition, particularly on the maternal side. His younger brother became a lawyer. However, many relatives and close family friends were noted scientists such as Albert Neisser, bacteriologist, Martin Freund, organic chemist, Minkowski and 'Augen' Cohn, medical scientists, and Cohn's son who, under the name of Emil Ludwig, became an internationally known writer. Thus as a small boy he was exposed not only to an intellectual heritage but also to contact with many professional and academic adults. He was educated at the same liberal, humanist gymnasium in Breslau as Bonhoffer, who became an eminent protestant theologian and was later killed by the Nazis. This gymnasium gave excellent instruction in mathematics, Greek, and Latin – much of which Lemberg retained in his later years despite his modest disclaimers. As might have been expected he was more attracted to the intellectual glories of the Greek civilization than to the majestic splendour of the Roman heritage.

Lemberg had a keen love of music mostly of the middle Germanic tradition, music by composers such as Telemann, whose music he greatly enjoyed, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. He was not drawn much to the creations of the French and English schools, though he loved Purcell and had some attachment to the works of Britten. He has recorded that there was a great deal of music in his home. His beautiful mother, who was later to die in a concentration camp, had a fine alto voice and his younger brother who also migrated to Australia played the viola and continued to do so until his death two years before that of Lemberg. Though Rudi Lemberg was never a practising musician, he had great ability for analysing music immediately on hearing it.

Aesthetic appreciation was an important component in his mental disposition. Though a somewhat overprotected and frail child, he escaped to experience the joys of the open countryside and the woods beside the River Oder. Thus from childhood and throughout his student days he was keenly aware of the beauty of natural surroundings. In his autobiographical chapter (1965) there are several references to the beauty of the countryside he experienced in all countries he visited. He also enjoyed the colour and rhythm of verse, and frequently read Goethe, Morgenstern, and Rilke. He has recorded that he dreamt in colour and certainly he enjoyed the splendid reds of his porphyrin compounds.

His religious background was Jewish, although not strict or orthodox. His mother, who had a great influence on his cultural life, had a protestant education. He had many contacts with the Lutheran Church and was converted to the Christian faith during World War I. Thus he experienced the flexibility of the Jewish spirit combined with protestant application and uprightness which probably accounted for his strong conscience throughout his life.

War and universities

His high school education veered to the classics but he was impressed by his mathematics master and responded to his teaching. On leaving school he studied chemistry, physics, mineralogy, and geology at Breslau University, but the war came and, believing in the justice of the German cause, he tried to enlist. Twice he was refused on medical grounds and so continued his studies at Breslau, Munich, and Heidelberg until 1917. He was attracted to chemistry but recalled the teaching of this subject in both Munich and Heidelberg at that time as being dull. He enjoyed his period in Munich because of opportunities for skiing and walking in the Alps. In 1917 he was finally able to enlist in the German army. He served in the trenches as a telephonist. Like so many of his time, he gave loyal support to the Fatherland but the brutal experiences in the German army left him a confirmed pacifist with a keen contempt for the military establishment and the mentality of its officers. He was repelled by the brutalization of men by the war, not only by the crudity of the trenches, but also by the senseless cruelty of the officers and sub-officers. He was no coward, being able to face up to the hardships and death of the front line, and was awarded the Iron Cross (2nd class) for a daring attempt to repair a telephone line during the Somme battle of March 1918, being wounded in the attempt.

In 1919 he was able to resume his university work at Breslau University, where he studied methyl-substituted uric acid derivatives with Heinrich Biltz, working towards a PhD. Lemberg remarks that he had not been fitted to become a biochemist. He had had no lectures on biological subjects and, except for a few hours teaching in microbiology and botanical class work, his extensive knowledge of biology was self-taught. Following the award of PhD (summa cum laude) he went to Mannheim in 1923 to work with Bayer, the pharmaceutical manufacturer. Biltz had told him that he was not suited to an academic life and should go into industry. On 21 December 1924 he married Hanna Claussen who was to share the rest of his life in Germany, in England, and in Australia. In 1926 following retrenchment in the prevailing economic crisis, he went to Heidelberg, obtaining a grant from the Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft which was supplemented by a three-year severance allowance from Bayer. Encouraged by Freudenberg, whose courage and kindness he greatly admired, he began research for his 'venia legendi', a qualification which would permit him to give lectures. Freudenberg recalled recently that he liked Lemberg very much because of his modesty. In Freudenberg's laboratory in the old Institute in the Märzgasse, the organic chemistry was directed to the solution of biochemical as well as physiochemical problems, and there Lemberg had his first contact with the borderland between chemistry and biology which became his future working field. At that time there was a great interest in metallo-organic compounds. Karl Ziegler, later to become a Nobel laureate for his researches on organo-metal complexes, provided many ideas for Lemberg's fertile mind. Hieber was then working on metal carbonyl compounds and Werner Kuhn had begun his studies on the optical rotatory dispersion of macromolecules. Kautsky had recently come from Warburg's laboratory to carry out fluorescence studies which became of importance in the understanding of photosynthesis.

With Freudenberg, whose work on the stereochemistry of organic compounds he admired, he worked on catechins for about six months, but then began independent work on the chromoproteins of red algae, stimulated by Czapek's accounts of them in his Biochemie der Pflanzen. Freudenberg recalls that they ordered a sample of seaweed from Japan, a most precious plant material in Heidelberg, which arrived in two trunks, one of which contained a crab. The algal chromoproteins largely occupied Lemberg's research efforts until 1934 but he retained a lasting interest in these pigments and was particularly pleased when one of his later colleagues (Barrett) took up the study of the interaction of the chromophores with the protein moiety in phycocyanin. Intuitively he recognized that the phycobiliprotein pigments were pyrrole-derivatives and was forced to immerse himself in the work of Hans Fischer whose school at Munich was prodigious in its output of tetrapyrrole literature, sometimes unfortunately premature and incorrect. Lemberg has recorded that there was some disagreement – or polemics – between Fischer and himself over the question of the structure of certain bile pigments. Lemberg and Fischer were antithetical and, though he recognized the immensity of Fischer's achievement, he was more drawn to the imaginative explorations of the Cambridge school of biochemistry, although inclined there to be critical of what he regarded as a lack of chemical thinking by Hopkins and Barcroft and certain of their associates. His Habilitation as Privatdozent at Heidelberg was awarded in 1930 for his demonstration that the prosthetic groups of the algal chromoproteins, phycoerythrin and phycocyanin, were bile pigments. The zinc complexes of the split products were like those of urobilin and 'mesobiliviolin', giving him the first clue that the prosthetic groups of these crystalline chromoproteins were bile pigments. This study also familiarized him with work on proteins.

On Freudenberg's recommendation he applied for a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to go to the biochemistry department under Gowland Hopkins at Cambridge. At that time Cambridge had outstanding scientists such as Barcroft, Robin Hill, Hopkins, Szent-Györgi, and the Needhams. Lemberg had been greatly impressed by the work of Keilin, Barcroft, and Robin Hill on haem compounds and cytochromes, and elected (1930-31) to continue his studies on the bile pigments rather than to participate directly in the work of the Hopkins school. This decision he later somewhat regretted. However there was interchange of ideas particularly between the departments of physiology and biochemistry and the Molteno Institute. One day Keilin told him that Barcroft had a green pigment in the placenta of the dog. It turned out to be 'uteroverdin', which was identical with oocyan, the green pigment that Lemberg had isolated from gull's egg shells. The 'uteroverdin' was more readily purified than oocyan and was analysed as tetrapyrrolic dehydrobilirubin. In Cambridge Lemberg worked in the same laboratory as Robin Hill, who at that time was doing his brilliant pioneering work on photosynthesis.

Retreat from Germany

Lemberg was a Christian socialist who had been a member of the democratic socialist party. Freudenberg recalls that he displayed no political divergences and no student agitated against him. However the end of his scientific career in Germany came in 1933 when he was compelled by the encroaching Nazi antisemitic oppression to flee from Heidelberg. His English friends were aware of the danger he was in and had sent a message by Szent-Györgi personally for him to leave immediately for Cambridge. Freudenberg had obtained orders from the authorities in Karlsruhe to dismiss him but, though he felt he had to pass on the information to Lemberg, he did not feel he had to serve him notice. However, though Lemberg was a qualified lecturer, he was working only as an assistant and, from that position, Freudenberg was obliged to give him notice. To the Lembergs' everlasting gratitude, Freudenberg gave them shelter in his own home during their last few days in Heidelberg. The Freudenbergs arranged a small farewell party attended by Dr and Mrs Ziegler, Dr and Mrs Kautsky and Werner Kuhn, who was a bachelor. Before his departure they all took a short walk through Heidelberg and accompanied him to the railway station. It had been a pleasant evening but Freudenberg recalls that though the departure was quite unsentimental, they were all overwhelmed and in a very reflective mood.

An associate of David Keilin during his second stay at Cambridge, Lemberg was increasingly aware of the excitement associated with the rediscovery of the cytochromes, first observed by McMunn in the nineteenth century, and of the beginnings of the unravelling of the complex pathways of biological oxidation.

The Australian opportunity for Lemberg to obtain some measure of financial and political security and to be established as a completely independent worker came through the foresight of Dr Wilson Ingram of the Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney. Dr Ingram, a Scot, of great pioneering spirit, travelled as surgeon to Antarctica with Mawson, and then in the mid-1920s founded the biochemical laboratories that were to grow into the Institute of Medical Research, containing the Kolling Laboratories. There in the crises of 1935 Lemberg found a haven and a base for his future growth as a scientist. The Academic Assistance Council of the UK sought all over the world at that time to resettle academic refugees in academic positions and Ingram had responded to their enquiries. Lemberg, who had been recommended by Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins as an outstanding scientist with a good command of English, accepted an offer to become a director of the Research Biochemical Laboratories, a position which had been advertised both locally and overseas. Ingram's decision to appoint Lemberg was both courageous and farsighted at a time when xenophobia and a lingering dislike of German nationals, even though many were victims of Hitlerism, still existed in some Australians. The appointment of Lemberg was subject to questions and protests by the Australian Medical Association and chauvinistic scientists; questions were also asked in Federal Parliament. Fortunately, the Australian immigration authorities were more humane and Ingram himself persisted with the appointment and protected Lemberg from those who criticized him for lack of a medical degree. Lemberg and Ingram both originated in the Northern Hemisphere, but were different in personality. They were nevertheless complementary so that their combined organizational and scientific strengths contributed greatly for 40 years to the output of research from the Institute. A bond between them was their love of exploration and both men had suffered the miseries of the western front of World War I.

The experience of travel to the far distant Sydney was a shock for the Lembergs and, during the long ship voyage, provided many doubts on the wisdom of isolating themselves from the centre of western learning and research. However the Australia of the thirties and forties provided a fertile, if unfamiliar, soil for the growth of Lemberg's ideas in biochemistry and gave him an opportunity to provide intellectual leadership in his branch of science. Cast out of his homeland he sought, perhaps, to play a fuller role as an exemplar of liberal humanistic thought and to contribute to his adopted country some of the intellectual heritage of European society. Lemberg was quick to find support for his research and, though funds were modest, he considered himself fortunate to have obtained such support so soon after his arrival, when some others, who were less fortunate than he, had proceeded westwards after their ejection from Germany by the Hitler regime, and had languished alone. In their turn, he and his wife, Hanna, working particularly with the Hon. Camilla Wedgewood, assisted refugees who had come from Europe to Sydney. This involvement with displaced people of that period and from the later upheavals and political disturbances of Europe, with the consequential loss of personal liberty of many scientists, gave the Lembergs much opportunity for challenging humanitarian work. This also caused him to think deeply about the wider issues of human liberty and in his later years the increasing violence and barbarities of the post-war scene. He sought to avoid allying himself to any movement politically inclined to the right or to the left but rather applied himself to the furtherance of humane missions through the Society of Friends.

Early years in Australia

The first few years were difficult, as he had inherited little equipment in his laboratory. The staff consisted of one graduate doing hospital analyses, one research graduate, R.A. Wyndham, and one technician, M. Norris, later to become a distinguished industrial chemist. He had to set about acquiring staff and was fortunate in obtaining the help of two very able younger colleagues in J.W. Legge and W.H. Lockwood who joined him in 1937 and 1938 respectively. At this time his eminence in the area of biological pigments had received international recognition, and he was invited to be author of the first review on animal pigments for the Annual Review of Biochemistry of 1937. The first X-ray crystallographic study on an azaporphyrin – a tetrapyrrole closely related to biological porphyrins – had just been completed by J.M. Robertson. The recognition of its planar structure led Lemberg to speculate on the binding of the iron-complexes of porphyrins to protein as in the oxygen carriers, haemoglobin and myoglobin, and in the haematin enzymes. Here he showed his brilliant insight and the beginning of his later preoccupation with the intimate relationship of the haems with their associated proteins, leading him to emphasize the importance of the conformational changes of the protein moiety of haemoproteins in determining and controlling the reactivity of the central iron of haematin enzymes, particularly cytochrome oxidase.

Those were the days of the threat of Nazism. Legge the Marxist and Lemberg the social democrat argued through the historical antagonism of ideologies to form a united front of two. Lemberg's pleasure at finding someone who spoke the same language and Legge's respect for his intellect developed into an understanding and affection that was life-long.

The advent of war in 1939 and the consequent increased isolation of Australia hindered the development of his laboratory researches. The exigencies of the war, particularly Australia's isolation from her normal sources of pharmaceuticals and other chemicals, provided a stimulus to find effective local means to overcome deficiencies of supply. To that end many notable scientists including Lemberg were coopted to give advice. He and his colleagues carried out a number of ad hoc investigations which arose from wartime needs. It was during this period that he isolated an orange pigment from a fungus gathered on his frequent walks in the Sydney bush. Named by him polystictin (now cinnabarin), it was the only nitrogen-containing fungal pigment then discovered. Lemberg studied its decarboxylation and later a colleague, Dr Peter Clezy (now associate professor of organic chemistry in the University of NSW) established cinnabarin to be 2-amino-phenoxazin-3-one and thus related to the antibiotic actinomycins.

During this period Lemberg intensified his survey of the accumulated literature of tetrapyrrole chemistry and biochemistry for his writing of the text on the haematin compounds and bile pigments – a book which was firmly to establish his authority in the field of tetrapyrrole biochemistry. Within this book he sought to bring into relation the many and varied biochemical manifestations of the porphyrin molecule as well as the linear tetrapyrroles, the animal bile pigments and the algal phycobilins, which had first drawn him into this diverse realm of chemical biochemistry. The book, Hematin Compounds and Bile Pigments, was published in 1949 with J.W. Legge as co-author and some collaboration from J.P. Callaghan. This book was a high-water mark in Lemberg's scientific development and thinking. It led to the shaping of his future major lines of personal research, which included the elucidation of the structure of porphyrin a and his investigations into the complexities of the interaction between molecular oxygen and the two haem a components of cytochrome oxidase (cytochromes a + a3). Quite early, Lemberg realized and put forward the view that the haem of the haemoproteins must lie in a crevice formed by the polypeptide chain of the protein.

Post-war years

The immediate post-war period brought to the research programmes of Lemberg some more very able men when Ernest Foulkes and John Falk joined his research group. Foulkes later became professor of physiology at Cincinatti, USA. Falk, who made important contributions to our knowledge of the biosynthesis of porphyrins and was the author of a classical book on porphyrins, later became Chief of Division of Plant Industry, CSIRO.

Lemberg committed himself and his colleagues for the next 14 years to the study of the structure of the prosthetic groups of cytochrome oxidase (cytochromes a + a3), cytochrome a2 (the terminal oxidase of many bacteria), lactoperoxidase and myeloperoxidase, and the interaction of these haems with their protein moieties. Significant contributions were made to the determination of the structure of these porphyrin prosthetic groups, some of which were first identified and isolated by Lemberg's school. The achievement was all the more remarkable considering the relatively simple apparatus and paucity of technical assistance. Great use was made of the hand spectroscope and the Hartridge reversion spectroscope, supplemented in 1951 by the first manual electronic spectrophotometer. Previously the quantitative spectral analysis – then a vital method in the determination of porphyrin structure – had been carried out using an optical spectrophotometer.

The haem moiety of cytochromes a + a3, the Atmungsferment of Warburg, proved hard to isolate and purify. Warburg chose to attempt to purify the haem, but Lemberg with his greater command of tetrapyrrole chemistry elected to purify the porphyrin. The task was difficult because of the extreme lipophilic nature of the molecule and the presence of complex lipid impurities from the heart tissue, and even obtaining enough fresh hearts was not easy! However, by the late forties Lemberg in Sydney, C. Rimington (with John Falk) at University College, London, W.A. Rawlinson of Melbourne University (in collaboration with Hale of St Mary's Medical School, London) had achieved the isolation of porphyrin a from heart muscle and bacteria, and had demonstrated that it had formyl and vinyl functions. Appropriately a joint communication was presented, in the presence of the pioneer, David Keilin, at the first International Congress of Biochemistry at Cambridge. The complete purification and crystallization of porphyrin a (as the dimethyl ester) and the definitive determination of the complete structure and subsequent synthesis of the porphyrin at the Cambridge Chemical Laboratories, under Alan Battersby, in collaboration with one of us (J.B., a former member of Lemberg's research group) and at the University of NSW chemistry school under Clezy, required 25 more years during which major contributions to the elucidation of the structure were made by the Lemberg school.

In 1949 Lemberg went overseas for the first time since his arrival in Australia – a span of 14 years. The international biochemical scene had changed greatly since his departure from Cambridge. With the stimulus provided by the post-war revival of biochemical research, there were advances in instrumentation, such as those of Britton Chance in spectroscopy, which were to have a profound influence on the development of dynamic studies in bioenergetics. New vistas were opening like that of Perutz at Cambridge, who had begun his X-ray crystallographic study of haemoglobin, of immense interest to Lemberg. By 1948 also, Shemin and Rittenberg in the USA, and Altman, had experimentally confirmed Lemberg's prediction that glycine and succinate were precursors of porphyrins and had opened up the whole problem of the complex biosynthesis of the natural tetrapyrroles.

Following the first International Biochemistry Congress at Cambridge, where he met several of the English and Continental porphyrin biochemists and investigators into bioenergetics of the cell, Lemberg proceeded to the USA. He was there also to meet several of the leaders of research into porphyrin biosynthesis and into bile pigment metabolism. As a former Rockefeller scholar of the 1930s, he visited the Rockefeller University. He then worked for two months in Chicago with David Shemin whose recent work with Rittenberg had shown by labelling with 14C that glycine and succinic acid were the precursors of the tetrapyrroles. Shemin(1) has recounted that they sought to identify the C1 compound that escaped on the splitting of the ring when haem was degraded to biliverdin. He recalls that they mistakenly looked for CHO rather than correctly for CO. Lemberg also encountered Watson and Schmidt of Minnesota who have spoken of their immense admiration for Lemberg's scientific insight, wide-ranging intelligence, and personal charm.

Lemberg journeyed to the west coast visiting Berkeley and the laboratory of Calvin, who was later to receive a Nobel award for his discovery of the C3 photosynthesis cycle. Although not engaged in photosynthesis chemistry, apart from his earlier discoveries of the nature of the chromophores of the algal phycobiliproteins, Lemberg thought of and contributed to the discussion of the specific features of the chlorophylls which were especially pertinent to the primary act of photosynthesis.

On his return to Australia Lemberg was enabled by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to purchase a modern high speed centrifuge and other equipment for a joint investigation with his next generation of colleagues into the bioenergetics of animal and microbial cells. The same year brought to the laboratory the first manual electronic spectrophotometer of high optical resolution. This instrument, and its successors, were to play an important role in the elucidation of the structure of porphyrin. Though Lemberg gradually acquired, and used with great skill, the new equipment that more sophisticated technology made available, he was a master of simple improvization which he maintained could often solve difficult technical problems. He would recount, with some glee, how his analytical chemistry teacher, 'old' Jannash at Munich, had removed the starched shirt cuffs from his wrists to demonstrate their use as shields when grinding refractory silicates in a mortar. He had a delicate, artistic approach to bench work which accounted for much of his success, exemplified by the great skill that enabled him to crystallize the dimethyl ester of biliverdin which had defied purification since its discovery in the 1850s.

Lemberg was catholic in his acceptance of people with innate scientific ability. Not overly impressed by formal degrees, he would give opportunities to those who had not experienced the particular scientific disciplines encompassed by his school. Because of his attitude, two of his colleagues, Frank Moss, a medical bacteriologist (later associate professor of biochemistry, University of NSW) and one of us (J.B.), formerly a microbiologist, were enabled to make significant contributions to the work of the Lemberg school. Lemberg's relationship with his co-workers was that of a gentle aristocrat and savoured of the enlightened court of a nineteenth century German principality, echoing another era. 'Let a thousand flowers flourish' could well have described Lemberg's laboratory in its most creative period.

His undoubtedly high reputation for his work on tetrapyrrole chemistry and biochemistry was recognized by the Royal Society of London which elected him to its fellowship in 1951.

Later years

Because of his dominant interest with the organic moieties of the many fascinating tetrapyrrole-proteins investigated at Royal North Shore Hospital, his laboratory was essentially a natural-product style organic chemistry laboratory until the advent of David B. Morell, a student of David Keilin. Later, the grants of large NIH funds enabled support of research, particularly in the protein field, so that work in the sixties and seventies was directed towards topics in haemoprotein and phycobiliprotein biochemistry rather than porphyrin chemistry per se. Perhaps the turning point can be seen to be marked by the Haematin Enzyme Symposium organized under the auspices of the Australian Academy of Science and held in Canberra in 1959. Lemberg was the president and principal editor of the proceedings; R.K. Morton was the convener, and Falk the local organizer. The proceedings were published under the title of Haematin Enzymes. This international symposium was something of a watershed in the development of haematin biochemistry, bringing together for the first time on this subject, workers from mathematics, physics, and biology. It was important for another reason also, for it was the first time that a party of Japanese scientists had visited Australia since before World War II and marked the beginning of the collaboration between Australian and Japanese biochemists working in this field. The Japanese delegation was headed by Professor K. Kaziro who had been at Cambridge University. Others who attended included Y. Ogura and F. Egami, and the younger, brilliant T. Horio. By then most of the purely organic-type chemistry on the porphyrins and bile pigments in Lemberg's laboratory had been carried out and the later sustained interest in the interaction of their metal complexes – or the free tetrapyrroles in the case of the phycobiliproteins – was developing. Lemberg himself had just returned from a six months visit overseas where, during 1958, he had worked on the biosynthesis of porphyrin a for two months in Rimington's laboratory at University College Hospital, London. He had also visited university departments in Europe, including those of Lynen and Kiese in Munich. He had also lectured at the Academia Anatomica-Chirugica di Perugia (and in 1959 took much pleasure when membership of the ancient Academy was conferred on him, so reinforcing his 'European identity').

That invigorating confrontation in 1959 with many eminent workers on the area of cytochromes and haematin enzymes stimulated his research into the complexities of cytochrome oxidase, for him perhaps the most important of haematin enzymes – or of any – because of its vital role in respiration. This study of a highly sophisticated haem-copper protein complex absorbed Lemberg's attention to the end of his working life. From that time on he was also increasingly involved in international collaboration. In 1966 he was guest professor with Britton Chance at the Johnson Foundation, University of Pennsylvania, where he continued the collaboration with Dr Marion Gilmour who had been a visiting fellow in his laboratory in Sydney. He contributed vigorous discussions on cytochrome oxidase during his USA visit, particularly at the Heme and Hemoproteins Colloquium in Philadelphia (a colloquium dedicated to him) and at the first Gordon Conference on porphyrins which was also attended by four of his collaborators – Falk, Barrett, Sinclair, and Gilmour.

In 1967, accompanied by two of his associates, he went to Japan as chairman of the Symposium on Structure and Function of Cytochromes honouring Okunuki, the leader of haematin-enzyme research in Japan. He prepared himself (aged 70) by learning some Japanese. His preeminence in tetrapyrrole biochemistry was generally recognized and he was sought after by many Japanese scientists both at Kobe and at the Congress of Biochemistry in Tokyo. He was accorded the status of Dai Sensei (distinguished teacher). On his part, Lemberg admired the Japanese scientists for their experimental skills and keen powers of observation. As always, he embraced new experiences with appreciative vigour and attended the classical theatres, One of us (J.B.) remembers both the vigour with which he scaled the hills above Lake Hakone to arrive at the sulphurous plateau of Ohwakidani and to examine enthusiastically the bubbling sulphur vents, and his enjoyment of the solitude at a wayside eating place. In his final year of professional life (1972) he revisited the centres of haemoprotein work in Japan, en route to the symposium on porphyrin chemistry convened by the New York Academy of Sciences.

In his last decade he was particularly engrossed with the problem of the interaction of the two molecules of haem a (not rigidly proven to be identical in every structural detail) and the two copper atoms of the complex mammalian cytochrome oxidase (cytochrome a,a3). This phase of his life work culminated in a definitive and encyclopaedic review in 1969 in Physiological Reviews, which brought some thousand requests for reprints from many countries. A final and more synoptic account of his views was given in his second book, Cytochromes, with J. Barrett, published in 1973. There he expressed his standpoint that, though the evidence did not support the view that cytochrome oxidase consisted of two separate haem a proteins, there was strong evidence for two different types of binding of the two haem a groups to protein in cytochrome-oxidase. In this view he differed from the eminent and admired Okunuki school. In his later experimental work Lemberg intensively studied, with Professor Ron Williams of Canada and Dr Marion Gilmour of the USA, the ferric state and the oxygenated state (discovered by Okunuki) of solubilized cytochrome oxidase. He concluded that mechanistically the oxygenated state was important as being indicative of a highly reactive, transient Fe3+, or ferryl (Fe IV) state of membraneous cytochrome oxidase in the mitochondrion.

Influence on Australian science

Lemberg had experienced, in the 1930s, the value of the frequent meetings of the British Biochemical Society as a forum of interchange of ideas for spreading the burgeoning knowledge of biochemistry. In Sydney he actively participated in the late 1940s and early 1950s with his colleagues in the (now defunct) Society for Experimental Biology of NSW. From the time of World War II he attended regularly the weekly forum at the Botany School, Sydney University, inaugurated and led by one of us (R.N.R.). The appreciation of this reading group (affectionately termed the bible class!) for the critical discussion and dissemination of current international research, particularly in what is now termed bioenergetics, is attested to by the assiduous weekly attendance of the 'Lemberg group', considering the time and hazards of travel across Sydney. Lemberg's contributions to the education of many younger scientists at that reading group over about 15 years were of great value.

The Australian Academy of Science was founded in 1954 by a group of scientists most of whom were fellows of the Royal Society of London. Lemberg, who had become an FRS in 1952, was much concerned with the discussions leading up to the foundation of the Academy and regarded it as a very important development for Australian science. He subsequently took part in various activities, being a member of Council (1956-58) and vice-president (1957-58). When the Academy began it took over the National Committee for Biochemistry which had been under the auspices of the Australian National Research Council and on which he had been serving. Lemberg was elected to the National Committee for Biochemistry of the Academy and served until 1966 and took part in the activities of the Sectional Committees. He was particularly interested in the Academy building, both before and after it was completed and welcomed the addition of its imaginative architecture among the more conventional Canberra buildings; he referred to it as the 'mushroom'. He regularly attended the dinners of the Sydney fellows' dining club. Lemberg was also active in the affairs of the Royal Society of NSW and was its president in 1956.

The growth of biochemistry in Australia, largely in the capital cities, was brought about by increased funding by the Federal Government through the National Health and Medical Research Council and, later, the Australian Research Grants Committee. It was assisted also by the formation of several special disease-oriented medical funds and by the expansion of that fount of biological research in Australia, the CSIRO. The growing interest in biochemistry and the increasing number of biochemists resulted in a search for a more general venue for an exchange of current biochemical research within Australia. At the national level this had previously been effected to some extent at ANZAAS. Lemberg was a strong supporter of that organization and in 1954 he was president of the section comprising biochemistry and physiology at the ANZAAS Congress. By this time there was a strong feeling that biochemists needed a specialist association to advance their science. Extensive consultation led to the formation in 1955 of the Australian Biochemical Society, of which Rudi Lemberg became the first president, and subsequently its first honorary life member. Recently the principal annual lecture of the Society and its associated gold medal were named after him.

From his viewpoint as director of the Biochemical Laboratories of the Royal North Shore Hospital, Lemberg realized the need to upgrade the standard of clinical biochemical analysis. He saw particularly the need to achieve complete biochemical values for normal subjects to assist the clinician in his diagnosis of pathological states. Following consultation with D. Roman of Adelaide and other clinical biochemists, he encouraged his deputy in the clinical area, F. Radcliff, to collaborate in this task with K.M. Mattocks (Sydney), J. Owen (Melbourne), and D.H. Curnow (Perth). Having provided a stimulus to action, Lemberg left this task to his younger confreres, while continuing to play the role of an elder statesman. He was gratified to see shortly the formation of the Association of Clinical Biochemists – and to become its patron.

Lemberg served on the Advisory Committee of the NH&MR Council for ten years: he was always concerned about the financial plight of the young and promising research worker at the threshold of an independent career. For some years Lemberg was also on the Advisory Committee of the NSW State Cancer Council, where he sought to apply strict scientific principles to the assessment of applications for grants.

It is appropriate to record that, throughout his scientific career in Australia, he was generously supported – in the context of the limited funds available – by grants, first from the National Health and Medical Research Council, and later from the Australian Research Grants Committee. Between 1961 and 1969 the National Institutes of Health (USA), Heart Division, gave considerable amounts of money for major equipment, salaries, and substantial alteration and refitting of part of one floor at the Kolling Institute. The successful development and redeployment of the research within the scientific ambit of Lemberg and his colleagues during that period was dependent on this foreign aid which, thereby, made an important contribution to advancing biochemistry in this country.

It is a significant comment on the university scene in Australia, and in Sydney in particular, that Lemberg received no official recognition from any university until the University of Sydney conferred on him an honorary DSc in 1970, largely due to the representations made by L.C. Birch and R.J.W. Le Fèvre. Though he contributed in many ways to university life, his potential as a teacher and leader of thought in the biological sphere was never recognized by any formal academic affiliation or by a personal chair, such as would have happened in other countries. His scientific eminence was recognized by his peers in this country and especially overseas. In 1956 his old university, Heidelberg, conferred on him the status of Professor Emeritus, and he was a foreign member of the Heidelberg Academy of Science. In 1965, he was awarded the James Cook Medal of the Royal Society of NSW and, in 1971, the Walter Burfitt Prize and Medal of the same Society.

His philosophy

Lemberg thought deeply about life, the significance of man's existence in the cosmic scheme, and his personal role therein. He was a deist and his philosophical thinking was influenced and permeated with the light of his particular understanding of man's existence. Although a protestant and a member of the Society of Friends, shaped by his education and his long association with his gifted and devoted wife Hanna, he had within him elements of the Hebraic faith and would often emotionally identify with the Jewish cause in controversial issues.

As a scientist he thought critically about the physical origin of life, devoting a chapter in each of his books to discussion of the evolution of tetrapyrroles and haematin enzymes. Lemberg accepted the geobiological evolutionary theories of I.A. Oparin, who has expressed his great respect for Lemberg and his exploratory discussions of this topic.

He was preoccupied with the truths of human life. He was not only analytical in his approach but also thought creatively. He was emancipated, humane, and compassionate in his approach to social questions, but elements of the Jewish concept of a just, albeit strict and righteous, God would obtrude into the more generally tolerant vein of his attitudes. His stature as a theological thinker was recognized by the invitation of the Society of Friends of Australia to give the annual Backhouse Lecture in 1966. This lecture 'Seeking in an age of Imbalance' has been widely acclaimed.

His desire for open discussion of the philosophical and sociological, on a real-world plane, led him for many years to participate actively in and often lead the wider discussions provided by the Friday evening forum of the Society of Friends, to which not only senior members of the community came, but also many students. For some young people these discussions, especially in the 1960s, left an indelible impression. Men such as Dr H.C. Coombs, chairman of the Reserve Bank and later chairman of the Australian Council of Aboriginal Affairs, Thomas Keneally, novelist, Charles Birch, biologist and theologian, Peter Mason, physicist, women such as Faith Bandler, aboriginal leader and spokeswoman, and Dorothy Butler, the mountaineer, presented their views on major contemporary issues at these forums, the venue of which was a Meeting House given by Lemberg to the Society of Friends, and set in the beautiful native bush garden of his home at Wahroonga. This Meeting House had been built from the money of his Britannica (Aust.) Prize for Science, presented in 1965.

As his life advanced, he became increasingly concerned with the spiritual crises of western technological man and with the problems increasingly encountered by the Asian countries confronted with the impact of this technology. He raised his voice against the abuse of scientific knowledge, against its misuse by military-economic juntas, and against political power-blocks' ability to lay waste man's environment, and his artistic and social heritage. He was troubled by the use of violence in political and social disputes, and saw in the unbridled uses of violence and torture as political tools the possible ultimate destruction of humane rationalistic western society. As a pacifist, his conscience led him to protest against the dangers to the peace of the world caused by the development of the H-bomb. He deplored the idiocies and cruel suffering of the Vietnamese war. His convictions were such that when he was in his seventies he endured a silent vigil throughout the night outside the Sydney Town Hall.

His character

In his early years, Rudi Lemberg had a private teacher who was a naturalist; his mother also knew the names of nearly all the local species of wildflowers and, in his university years, he received some instruction in botany. Freudenberg recalls he was a gardening enthusiast in Heidelberg where he rented a small garden to grow flowers and vegetables and a few grape vines. His early interests matured into a great love of the flora of the native bush of New South Wales and of the alpine slopes of the Snowy Mountains. With loving meticulousness, he plotted the distribution, and catalogued the identity and appearance of the many wildflowers, bushes and trees that filled the one-acre native bush garden of his home in the hills of Sydney. His special love was for the wild orchids; these beautiful, sometimes solitary plants, he photographed systematically.

Lemberg was a very warm person despite his sometimes austere attitudes, and was sincerely interested in the continuing fortunes of younger scientists with whom he had had association either as supervisor of their research in his own laboratories, as an adviser to a PhD student, or later as examiner. He took pride in their achievements even if they were not his own pupils. On one occasion he was heard to refer to his own scientific entourage as his 'science children' and the students of John Falk, who was then heading a flourishing porphyrin and chlorophyll biochemistry research group in Canberra, as his 'science grandchildren'. If there was a slight possessiveness in this remark, it was far out-weighed by his sense of continuing responsibility to those he had guided in their careers.

He took great interest in imparting his knowledge to his associates, to students, and to children. Though never having formal teaching responsibilities in Australia, he gave many authoritative lectures in the scientific field, characterized by insight and breadth of scholarship and which were delightful and endearing in their delivery.

Lemberg had tremendous powers of concentration, and the ability to exclude all extraneous distractions when working at the bench or writing, to the extent that it was sometimes impossible to break into his consciousness if he was approached without prior arrangement. During the writing of the book The Cytochromes, in his seventies, after a day in his laboratory going through his card index and journals he would work every evening until late at night, collating and writing the text of the chapter currently in hand.

When in deep consideration of some of his favourite scientific principles, Lemberg was oblivious of the mechanical and organizational machinery of society. Colleagues remember, with fond amusement, his presidential address to the Royal Society of NSW. Having filled the blackboard, he sought only briefly for the duster before, to the sudden consternation of the secretary of the Society, he firmly grasped the scarlet side curtains with the very evident intent of putting them to practical use as dusters! Likewise, he was not interested in, or good at, the mundane administrative tasks which he rarely delegated but simply by-passed, believing usually correctly, that someone would take over.

Similarly, Lemberg did not organize the members of his research groups into a coordinated multi-faceted attack on a problem. Unless frustrated by his personal inability to cope with the necessary scale of operations, he worked frequently as a 'one man band' thus allowing his colleagues to work with him or on (sometimes rather distantly) related topics, as they chose. Thus, it was difficult to imagine Lemberg as the motivating head of a university department with all its organizational as well as human needs. Nevertheless, he was exceptional as one who would motivate his colleagues through his ad hoc 'think sessions' in the research laboratory or the discussion group where his leadership stemmed simply from the high quality of his probing and postulating mind.

Never having a large staff, at the most four senior colleagues with an equal number of supporting assistants and the occasional visitor, he was an assiduous bench worker and only in his later years delegated his experiments to others.

Trained as a chemist, though by nature drawn to the enormous variety of form and range of colour of the biological realm, he delighted in the coloured solutions of porphyrins and bile pigments and the formal beauty of their crystallized state. Until his death he retained, and displayed with great pleasure, the first crystals of phycocyanin prepared in 1932 at Cambridge. To his great joy, his wife Hanna, through her sensitive skill, was able to capture the colour and form of the Australian bush in her remarkable tapestries.

Lemberg gave a distinctive and intellectual stature to the science of biochemistry in Australia equalled by only a few others in his time. He brought to his adopted country a rich heritage from the associations of his youth and early manhood. In his life he bore himself with a dignity and was an exemplar of the value of reason and scholarship. He conducted himself with no interest in personal gain or in the acquisition of power. He brought with him the impress of his years at Cambridge where he had grown to love the gentleness and warmth of his many Cambridge friends, some of whom were of the Society of Friends. He invested any office he held with a sense of dignity and purposefulness to deal with the tasks ahead, committing himself with zeal to the furtherance of its cause.

Though Lemberg was sure of his position as a scientist and aware of the esteem with which his work was held by those familiar with the field of haematin enzymes he, nevertheless, bore some evidence of the insecurity of his younger years. This in part had been generated by the economic collapse of the new German Republic and by the destruction of his career in Germany due to the emergence of the Nazi regime. As his wife has noted, the shock of having to fight for his very existence, because he had been publicly stamped as a Jew, contributed greatly to this sense of insecurity.

His insecurity appeared also in later life because he seemed to feel that he had not been accepted by the establishment at Cambridge, despite his two periods in that mecca of biochemists, and he never revisited Cambridge after the first Biochemical Congress in 1949. At some stage in his earlier life, he had prepared a paper for the Proceedings of the Royal Society and it had been rejected and returned with comments which he regarded as unscientific.

Perhaps compensating for this uncertainty made him appear arrogant at times. Though somewhat autocratic in approach and somewhat impatient with specious arguments, which he would contemptuously dismiss, he was not arrogant but rather was committed to maintaining standards of excellence and intellectual probity, sometimes in situations where these standards had been obscured. He was a somewhat reticent person, though accurately described as an intellectual elitist. Although quick to speak his case in any discussion, private or public, he did not appear to be fitted to participate in the hurly-burly of academic politics and certainly would never engage in 'horse-trading' to secure personal or professional advancement.

With the passage of time perhaps his greatest contribution to science (and above all to its quality) in this country may be seen not only in his intellectual scientific achievements, great as they were, but also in the leadership he gave and in the maintenance of the highest standards of conduct and judgement, often before conflicting claims. This he did with firmness but with an essential humility only by which a man can advance the causes of enlightenment of humanity and of even partial comprehension of the universe.

Sir John Eccles, Nobel laureate, has written to one of us:

Rudi Lemberg was one of the most gracious and gentle men I have ever known. In a wonderful way he adopted his new homeland with a deep love and understanding of nature. He became an expert in Australian wildflowers, particularly in the great national parks of the Sydney area. I remember vividly several long walks with him in the enchanting Kuringai Chase, in August, in wildflower time. Out of his love grew his acre of beautifully planted wildflowers and trees in his paradisal 'Sanctuary' at Wahroonga.

He was deeply religious and extremely sensitive to the wonder and mystery of existence. After much effort he was able to develop a philosophy in which science and religion had a complementary relationship at a mystical level. It was a synthesis of vital interest to this present age of disillusionment, where it has been assumed that science had destroyed religion and yet had not replaced it by a system of beliefs whereby human individuals could live in harmony and dedication and face death with serenity.

I had long ago urged him to write his message to mankind, and at last he started, but unfortunately too late. It was to be a great enterprise and was entitled Complementarity of Religion and Science. Alas, he died after completing only 8 of the projected 50 chapters. Here is a brief extract:

'We are creatures of the earth and part of nature, and also made in God's image in a sense deeper than that nature is also God's creation. We are in a special way God's helpmates to whom some creativity has been delegated. We remain as part of nature and can as such enjoy its beauty. The knowledge of the really great scientists has not diminished but enhanced their sense of wonder and mystery. Far from being a hindrance to the freedom of our souls, matter is in fact the complement, providing the handholds and footholds on the mountain of our spiritual climb.'

I believe that this fragment of eight chapters gives a unique message by a great scientist. I hope for a publisher who will link these eight chapters with some six earlier publications by him on religion and science.

About this memoir

This memoir was originally published in Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vol.4, no.1, 1978. It was written by:

  • Jack Barrett, MSc, who was a member of the Biochemical Research Group of the Kolling Institute, Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney, 1953-73, and is at the time of publication a Visiting Fellow with the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry, Canberra.
  • Sir Rutherford Robertson, CMG, DSc, FRS, who was director of the Research School of Biological Sciences, The Australian National University, and is at the time of publication Emeritus Professor of Botany in the University of Adelaide. He was elected to the Academy in 1958, was secretary (Biological Sciences) in 1958, a member of Council 1961-64, and president of the Academy 1970-74.


We are grateful to a number of people who helped us with material and comments when we were writing this biographical memoir. Special thanks are due to Mrs Lemberg for her substantial and thoughtful help at all times and to Mrs Katherine Carson, secretary of the Institute for Medical Research at Royal North Shore Hospital, who played such an important role over many years in the research group.

Former research colleagues of Lemberg who have helped are P. Clezy, J.W. Legge, W.H. Lockwood, D.B. Morell and Norma Scott (Newton). Helpful comments also came from C. Appleby and the letter quoted came from Sir John Eccles. We are indebted to Dr G.F. Kolar for obtaining and translating into English the reminiscences of Professor Karl Freudenberg.


(1) Personal communication.

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