school, where his talents for mathematics and physics were first realized.
At home he built radios and played with chemistry sets.
In high school, Rossmann had the advantage of meeting some of the
20th century’s top scientists. Pioneering crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale
met with a teenage Rossmann after a talk. Lonsdale, the first woman inducted
into the British Association for the Advancement of Science, inspired him to
pursue structural science throughout his academic career.
Soon after the Allies’ victory, Rossmann enrolled in Regent Street
Polytechnic and obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math and physics
from the University of London.
Then, while seeking a doctorate at the University of Glasgow, he heeded
Lonsdale’s influence to jump into the quickly growing field of chemical crystallography. The roots of defining the structures of viruses started here.
Crystallography was a hot field in the 1950s, as atomic theory was becoming
“We students were given crystals of small organic compounds and were
expected to determine their structures,” Rossmann says. “The X-ray pattern
is a bunch of spots, and from those spots, we deduced what the structures
Rossmann’s thesis is titled simply “A Study of Some Organic Crystal
Structures.” It was the beginning of a tremendous career that would yield
After finishing the doctorate, Rossmann had his first taste of America
during a two-year postdoctoral stint under William Lipscomb, who would
later win a Nobel Prize for his work on boron chemistry.
Then it was back to the United Kingdom for a research associate position
at the University of Cambridge
under Max Perutz, who was to
obtain a Nobel Prize in 1962
for his work on the struc-
tures of hemoglobin.
Rossmann wrote most
of the computer pro-
grams on an early
and worked closely with
“I believe I got there
because I was interested in solving
the mathematics of protein structures,” he says. “I saw it as a mathematical
Also during this time, Rossmann had another fortuitous meeting with
a name that has been in textbooks for decades — Francis Crick. The Crick
who with James Watson discovered the double-helix structure of DNA in
“I had coffee with Francis and others every morning. He was a very
stimulating figure,” Rossmann remembers. “Life is a set of
After much success with Perutz and a new direction into biology, in 1964
it was time to leave the nest for his first stop as a professor: Purdue University.
“I HAD COFFEE WITH
AND OTHERS EVERY
MORNING. HE WAS A
FIGURE. LIFE IS A SET
Rossmann works on a brass model of the
molecular structure of a virus. Photo circa
1973 courtesy of the College of Science.