Vittorio Luzzati – Interviewed by Alan Macfarlane

luzzati18th September 2009

0:09:07 Born in Genoa, Italy, 1923; family belonged to the Jewish tribe from Piedmont, a small group of perhaps 2000 people, some remarkably distinguished (three of them are Nobel laureates); in my own family there is nothing remarkable; my grandfather was born around 1865 in a Ghetto of a small town in the Papal State where Jews were still restricted to live; only in 1870, when Rome was taken over by the nascent Italian state, were the Pope’s Jews emancipated; he then went to school where one day a school teacher said something that my grand-father took to be anti-Semitic; he then threw the inkpot at the teacher; as a result he was expelled from the whole educational system and emigrated to Argentina; my mother’s mother belonged to a fairly cultivated Jewish family of Piedmont; she had studied as a school teacher, something that in that place and in those days was exceptional for a woman, whatever her religion; the family’s prosperity was based on the silk industry; the silk-worms’ disease that erupted around 1885 brought ruin to the family; they also emigrated to Argentina; the American chapter of my saga had a profound influence on my future; in 1938 when the anti-Semitic policy started in Italy it was all too natural for my family to move to Argentina, my mother’s birthplace

4:05:11 Primo Levi was a member of the tribe; he was a close friend of mine, but he became such a famous personage that I feel uncomfortable talking about him; his mother and my father were first cousins, they were exactly of the same age, and both were members of big families; I knew Primo Levi when I was a child and used to go to Torino for a few weeks just before school started in September; I would go and play with him; he was three years older than I and to my eyes he was remarkably knowledgeable; he was extremely sweet; then we moved to Argentina and he stayed in Italy; the rest is well known; I met him again when I returned to Europe in 1947 and we tried since to meet as often as we could; throughout his life Primo was an exceptionally sweet person, prepared to listen to people, to ask questions and wait for replies; I know nothing about his suicide though I did know that at some time he had suffered from psychological problems; Primo and his wife had come to Paris and stayed with us for a couple of weeks immediately after their marriage; at one time, after a dramatic event in my life, I felt an impulse to write, and requested his advise; one problem was the choice of the language since my mother tongue was Italian, but in Argentina, where I went to university, Spanish was my «official» language, and later my professional life took place in France, with short spells in America and England; Primo made the surprising suggestion that I should express myself in different languages

10:10:15 My grandparents were not very influential in an intellectual sense; my grandmother lived nearby and moved to Argentina with us; she was a very energetic woman and we were all scared of her; my father’s father was a sweet man but had very little influence; my father did have a strong influence on me; he was one of those people whose life was cut by the first World War; he was drafted when he was nineteen and left the army at twenty-four; the family was not wealthy so he could not go to university as he would have liked to do; he was a cultivated man; he had clear political opinions, and was strongly against fascists, and said it openly; I know of other children whose father thought that it was bad for children to be exposed privately to political opinions opposite to those which prevailed in those days; my first readings were of my father’s choice; when I was twelve or thirteen he introduced me to the great Russians – Tolstoy, Chekhov – also to Italo Svevo, who in those fascist days was hardly known in Italy; my father was not a very successful businessman; he had close connections with Britain; after leaving the army he was awarded a six-months scholarship and went to Liverpool; later he used to come to this country; when he returned home we would have for a few days an English breakfast, all sitting round the table; in Italy breakfast is not seen as a meal; my mother was a good pianist and, thanks to her, music played a great role in my life; in her early twenties she had to make a choice between raising a family or training as a professional pianist; she chose to marry and have children, but she regularly played piano and sometimes performed in local concerts; she had a strong liking for Baroque music that she used to analyse with remarkable subtlety; from her I learned that music is not just a pleasant pastime but also an intellectually rewarding activity; I too like Baroque music, probably because of my education; I often worry when I see people liking other kinds of music which I don’t enjoy, and I rather envy them; mother would play mainly seventeenth century music

16:24:07 My father’s mother died when I was about two and a half; I have a vivid memory of a scene where I wake up in a big bed and she shows me a table with plenty of toys, but I am rather sceptical about it being actual memory or something I was told; my first school was in Genoa where I started at six; I remember all the schools I went to; in consequence of my father’s strong opinions, whenever someone behaved as an anti-fascist and was prepared to discuss with my father, he would acquire some importance to me; in Italian high schools one principle teacher took care of the children for four-fifths of the time; he would teach Italian, Latin, History; Geography and Greek; one of them had a profound influence on me because he shared many of my father’s opinions; this had important consequences on the educational work because one of the troubles at the time was boasting and rhetoric; this professor taught us the use of understatement, particularly when dealing with Mussolini’s achievements; all the children in Italian schools were forced to be members of the Fascist Party; furthermore it was highly recommended to train children in the use of weapons; my teacher, who like my father had gone through the war, hated weapons; my father never allowed us to play with weapons; I had other teachers who were as competent but I did not like them in the same way; when I was six or seven I had an old, thin, lady teacher, who was the sister of the local priest; she wore a black gown and behaved quite humbly; one day a schoolmate openly made some disparaging comment about Jews; she immediately stopped the teaching and for one full hour she explained why this should never happen again; this is an extraordinary event because Jews were a tiny minority in Italy, only a few hundred of them lived in Genoa, and the presence of Jewish children was sparse in the local schools

23:51:20 In my youth, emancipation from the ghetto was quite recent; my grandparents had all been born in the old Ghettos; the official anti-Semitism of the late thirties came as a surprise; being a small minority – less than one in a thousand – was quite different from being an Ashkenazi living the Shtetl; I wonder what made Italian Jews remain Jews throughout the 20 centuries of their presence in Italy; Italian Jews are not ethnically different from the rest of the population, as in Russia and in Poland, and they never spoke any language but Italian (and its dialects), the only difference was religion; there was a strong pressure from the Catholic church to convert the Jews and move them away from the ghetto; in the Venice Ghetto one can still see a seventeenth century stone, signed by the archbishop, reminding the Jews that once converted, they were not allowed into the Ghetto again; apparently throughout the centuries a sizeable fraction of those who were born Jews would convert and melt into the Christian society; a population selected on the basis of a certain kind of stubbornness may be expected to display unusual features, so in my days more than 10% of the university professors in Italy were Jewish

29:11:09 I was bar mitzvad, but my family did not celebrate Jewish festivals; my father’s mother was fanatically religious, and my father resented this very much; to him religion was more a family issue than a matter of faith; Hitler was to make a dramatic difference; I am not a believer in any religion but I am not opposed to religious beliefs; we are all to some extent irrational, even scientists; I remember with a smile that Francis Crick when interviewed by the BBC and asker whether he believed uttered, “Oh my God, No!”

31:44:04 As a child I was passionate about mountaineering; my father loved it and took us along; it has been part of my life until I had to give up some fifteen years ago; I did not collect things or watch birds, but enjoyed the physical effort and the beauty around me; I used to swim as a boy but was never athletic; I never learned to play a musical instrument; I think my mother knew that to enjoy playing music you had to put in enormous effort; I was fifteen when I went to Argentina where I finished my schooling; I got a university degree there in mechanical engineering; there was not much choice of subject; I faced America the wrong way, we were Italians, and the feeling in the family was that we were culturally superior to the «natives»; that was not only wrong but also stupid; Buenos Aires is the cradle of one of the most lively cultures of our time; many Argentineans became brilliant intellectuals, and scientists trained in Argentina have spread throughout the world; only too late I realized that I should have taken Argentina far more seriously than I did; the sad fact was that Argentina did not seem to offer much of a future to those eager to engage in science; in one way I was right to leave as life for scientist had been difficult there, and was to worsen in the following years; I wanted to learn something, and I also wanted to go back to Europe; my fiancée was a medical student of recent French extraction, and she was very eager to return to France; we left in 1947, got married, and settled in France where she finished her medical education

38:10:04 My memory of returning to Europe is glorious; I was twenty-four and had just married, all the elements of happiness were there; everyone had the feeling that he would easily find a place and purpose in society; that feeling was very strong particularly in Paris; Britain, scientifically speaking, had a very big influence on me and I used to come to this country quite often; from the practical viewpoint life was more difficult in England than in France; rationing in France was not really serious but in England it was a serious issue until the early 1950s; poor food and scarce heating made practical life rather difficult on this side of the Channel, but also it had stimulating effects; today’s affluent society may be depressing for young people who have no real hope for the future; I did a doctorate in Paris on crystallography; to get my original degree took little work so I had plenty of time to read what I wanted, and I tried to learn some physics, mathematics and other basic disciplines; nowadays education is far more specialized, but in those days many of the pioneers were self-made men; that is particularly true among American molecular biologists, who were often chemists and physicist by training, who during the war had worked on the atomic bomb project and wished to do something else; they were not trained in molecular biology

42:13:24 When I went to my lab in Paris Rosalind Franklin was already there, so we shared the facilities and met every day; I had just married, my wife was a busy medical student, in the evening I would tell her about Rosalind and other colleagues; my wife had had a partly British education and was a keen reader of English literature; she felt that Rosalind was one of the characters of a 19th century English novel and wanted to make her acquaintance; Rosalind and my wife became good friends; we would go cycling together at weekends around Paris, then we went to Tuscany for an unforgettable fortnight; we were friends throughout our lives; as a scientist Rosalind was an extremely competent person, very earnest, but sometimes she could be difficult; the problems with Maurice Wilkins were due to differences in character and education, which led to a clash; we used to talk a lot about work but she didn’t give me the feeling of someone dealing with the secret of life; of the crucial breakthrough, I understand that she never bore any resentment; after 1953 Francis Crick became a close friend of hers, and she was invited to join the MRC Laboratory here (after her death Aaron Klug came in her place); I never heard that she felt she had been denied recognition; what is certain is that if Francis had met her earlier, things would have been quite different; he was the person that she needed to interact with

51:47:05 I stayed in the Paris Lab until the end of 1952, then I moved to Brooklyn for a year; in 1954 I went to Strasbourg and in 1962 to Gif-sur-Yvette just south of Paris; Francis Crick had a profound influence on me at the time we shared a desk for six months in Brooklyn; we both enjoyed conversation, we were approximately of the same age, sharing the same small salary and experiencing our first contact with the USA; Francis was a charismatic person and he convinced me that in our trade the thing to do was biology; ‘Reading rots the Mind’ – the warning Francis posted above his desk – meant that too much concern for other people’s work may have crippling effects; a good feeling for the problem is what that makes a great scientist; this involves a mixture of culture, intelligence, and common sense

59:04:01 France and French civilization made a strong impact on my career and probably the impact was not entirely positive; I sometimes wonder whether I would have been happier in this country; I always felt that my scientific roots were rather in this country (and more specifically in Cambridge) than in France; apparently French culture never quite recovered from Auguste Comte’s classification – you are a chemist, a physicist, a biologist, an anthropologist for life – and meeting with colleagues of different disciplines is a rare event; in this country, when sitting at high table for a College dinner I was always surprised to find myself next to colleagues from quite a different field; I understand that the same happens to students; in France since the end of secondary school (typically at the age of eighteen) the students of different disciplines hardly meet each other; throughout my Professional life I found myself surrounded by narrow minded physico-chemists or geneticists; a good definition of molecular biology is biology done by non-biologists; one piece of advice that Francis gave to me in Brooklyn was that we had the opportunity to do excellent biology without having to learn it; in retrospect I don’t think that biology would have turned molecular without extraordinary men like J.D. Bernal, whose role was pivotal in this country and especially in Cambridge; Bernal had the clear idea that molecular structure stands at the very roots of biology; today one may have the feeling that science evolves according to a sort of natural path; in fact in some cases the direction in which science moves is determined by one or a few individuals; the notion that the physical structure of molecules is a fundamental issue in biology was not trivial fifty or sixty years ago; Bernal’s political beliefs meant that he was not trusted by the establishment; much has been written about molecular biology and of its most impressive implications, but sometimes I wonder whether other disciplines – say electrophysiology – offer better examples of intellectual achievements; in many respects molecular biology is a chemical approach to biology

1:11:32:05 I have been lucky in life; I would go to the Lab and amuse myself, much more than anybody else; intellectually it has been greatly rewarding to get in touch with exceptionally bright people; I have not been much engaged politically; during the War I once attempted to join the British army but failed to find the way to do so; after the war I never was a Communist; I avoided one of the pitfalls of most people of my age who were politically committed; in France, most of them were Communists; I only became a French citizen in 1968 and before that date I could hardly be active in politics; circumstances, some of which might have been dramatic, played a major role in my life, as it is commonplace in continental Europe; take the example of Aaron Klug or Sydney Brenner, should their families not have emigrated to South Africa in the early twenties the chance of surviving the war were of the order of one in a hundred thousand, as the Jews from Lithuania were swept away; I have a strong feeling of being a survivor; my achievement stem more from chance than from merit – the chance of going to Argentina, then to France where persons of my age and education were heartily welcome after the War; one of my regrets is that I never did any teaching as until 1969 only French citizens could become University teachers; at that time it was too late for me; whenever I indulge to provide an advise to some beginner in Science I suggest that he should make an early choice about what interests him and then move on in that direction, without worrying too much about future practical opportunities.