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Walter Gratzer, Biophysical Chemist and Science Writer, Dies at 89

His career bridged impactful research in molecular biology and biochemistry with prolific science writing for academic and nonacademic audiences alike.

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Chloe Tenn

Chloe Tenn is a graduate of North Carolina State University, where she studied neurobiology, English, and forensic science. Fascinated by the intersection of science and society, she has written for...

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Nov 23, 2021

ABOVE: Walter Gratzer COURTESY OF KING'S COLLEGE LONDON

Walter Gratzer, a biophysical chemist who renowned for his popular science writing, died on October 20 at the age of 89.

Grazter was born on September 20, 1932 in a town called Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) according to an obituary from King’s College London written by cell biologist Simon Hughes, a colleague of Gratzer’s at the university. In 1939, Gratzer and his Jewish family moved to Great Britain due to increasing safety concerns. In 1951, he started an undergraduate program in chemistry at Oxford University, and after earning his degree in 1954, he joined the Royal Air Force, and served for several years.

Gratzer then pursued his doctorate by researching hemoglobin proteins at the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill in London. After receiving the degree in 1960, he crossed the Atlantic to research the biochemistry of nucleic acids at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was there that he met Hannah Gould, a fellow postdoctoral researcher, whom he married in 1963, writes The GuardianDuring that time, he also played a role in pioneering gel electrophoresis methods to separate RNAs by size, according to Hughes’ obituary.

Gratzer returned to London that same year to become a lecturer at King’s College London. There, his scientific focus shifted back from nucleic acids to protein biochemistry, and over the following decades, he investigated ribosomal structure, the dynamics of the motor protein myosin, and the protein cytoskeleton of red blood cells.

It was also during the 1960s that Gratzer first became interested in non-academic science writing. After John Maddox became Nature’s editor in 1966, Gratzer served as an unofficial biology news correspondent for the journal as well as a trusted advisor to Maddox on what to molecular biology research to publish, books to review, and even whose obituaries to run. According to a remembrance piece by Nature, Gatzer continued to provide advice to Nature’s biology editors throughout the 1990s.

Gatzer also penned numerous book reviews, opinion articles, and popular science books, which tackled everything from nutrition to the chemistry of molecules. “The elegance and clarity of his writing was, and remains, a joy,” Hughes writes. “As a raconteur, whether in print or in person, he was second to none.”