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Aaron Klug (1926 - )

The Order of Mapungubwe in

Aaron Klug (1926 - ) Awarded for:
Exceptional contribution if the field of medicine and putting South Africa on the world stage.

Profile of Aaron Klug

Aaron Klug was born in 1926 in Zelvas, Lithuania, and immigrated to South Africa with his parents at the age of two. While attending Durban High School he became interested in science, and after matriculating enrolled in the pre-medical course at the University of the Witwatersrand.

He began to concentrate on chemistry, and this led him to physics and mathematics. By the time Klug graduated with a BSc, he had decided to carry out research in physics, and obtained a scholarship from the University of Cape Town which enabled him to register for his Masters degree.

Klug stayed on to work on the X-ray analysis of small organic compounds, in the course of which he developed a method of using molecular structure factors for solving crystal structures, and became interested in the structure of matter.

In 1949 he enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge, and obtained a PhD in physics, then spent a year in the university's Colloid Science Department, working on the problem of simultaneous diffusion and chemical reaction, such as occurs when oxygen enters red blood cells. Klug's approach was to adapt techniques he had earlier developed to address the same problem in steel. He also demonstrated a technique which made use of computer simulations to analyze experimental kinetic curves.

This work had stirred Klug's interest in biological matter. Persuaded that his future lay in X-ray analysis of biological molecules, Klug obtained a Nuffield Fellowship to Birkbeck College in London.

This was the start of a long journey into various aspects of molecular biology and related subjects, such as the underlying principle of a method of three-dimensional image reconstruction in electron microscopy which later formed the basis of X-ray CT scanning. He also discovered the “zinc finger’ family of transcription factors, which is now widely used to regulate gene expression.

Various high honours have been bestowed on Klug. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982, made a member of the exclusive Order of Merit and knighted in 1988. He is also the recipient of a number of academic honours. In 1995 he was elected President of the Royal Society, he is an Honorary Fellow of Peterhouse and Trinity Colleges, Cambridge, and a “Foreign Associate’ of the United States National Academy of Sciences and the French Academy of Sciences, and has received a number of honorary degrees.

Aaron Klug's great achievements have evoked pride in his adopted country, where his life-journey to scientific renown commenced.