You started your studies at the University of Vienna in 1942. What made you choose chemistry?
I was fascinated by nature as a child. I used to collect minerals and butterflies and did chemical experiments at a very early age. It was clear that I would go into science. I was torn between Chemistry, Biology and Medicine. I was not allowed to study medicine for political reasons, so I chose chemistry and then moved into biology and medicine later in life.
Being a student in Austria in the 1940s – what was different?
The conditions were totally different. There were only very few students; most men had to join the army so there were mainly women and those who had permission to take time off from military service to go to university. Conditions at university were poor and they did not change for quite some time after 1945. We had to work under poor conditions but I was happy to be able to work at all. Like all young people I had to join the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich labour service) but I injured my arm and that saved me from having to join the army. I was fortunate compared to so many of my age. I was able to dedicate those important years to my studies, to science, and to my personal development. Most young men at that time were denied this privilege.
What has motivated you during your career?
I was a very keen student and had excellent teachers. Professor Späth was a fascinating teacher who gave extraordinary lectures. He exposed us to the essence of chemistry – to colours, smells. His lectures were not only intellectual but made you actually experience chemistry. Späth was a brilliant chemist and I was fascinated by his science. Later I also wrote my thesis on organic chemistry. I also worked on chemical synthesis a lot because I really enjoyed the manual work in the lab.
Who has influenced you the most?
As a teacher, Professor Ernst Späth was vital for my career. After him I worked with Friedrich Wessely. He was entirely different but also had a great influence on me and gave me a lot of support.
Looking back at you career in science, what was your biggest success?
Working with Fred Sanger in Cambridge and being able to make an important contribution to reveal the structure of haemoglobin were highlights in my scientific career. I was privileged to have the opportunity to work in a different environment compared to what we had in Austria back then. Succeeding in this environment made a big difference to me.
You had the privilege of knowing Max Perutz. How was he as a person, as a researcher?
I was introduced to Max Perutz by my teacher Professor Fritz Wessely who was also Perutz’s teacher. It was Wessely who sparked Perutz’s interest in biology. Initially Perutz was a physicist but with great interest in biologically relevant physics questions, which ultimately led him to X-ray crystallography. Since I was determined to go to the UK, Wessely contacted Perutz to get his advice on where the best place for me to work would be. Perutz suggested Fred Sanger’s lab and that’s where I went to work on insulin: the famous Fred Sanger who received two Nobel Prizes. It was wonderful because he was young, only seven years older than me. It was really a new start.
What are your memories of Max Perutz’s Lab in Cambridge?
When Perutz worked on the structure of haemoglobin, he went through hard times for many decades. Not sure if I could have done that. He stayed focused on one scientific question and his perseverance was outstanding. Apart from his science he spent more than two decades on establishing and leading the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, turning it into the most famous and well-known research institute in the world. There is no other institute in the world that “produced” 15 Nobel Prize laureates! Perutz successfully developed a set of new personal skills – a focus on the highest quality in research and on finding interesting questions and personalities. In his role as the director of the institute he may have achieved even more than with his science that brought him the Nobel Prize.
Why did you get involved with politics serving as minister for science?
My father was arrested in 1938. He was beaten to death immediately upon arriving to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, as revenge for him being the public prosecutor in the case against the murderers of chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss. Isn’t that enough to be pushed into politics? I was engaged in Austrian politics from the beginning and founded a political student association in 1945. That was the reason why I stopped working as a scientist very early and became active in science administration and politics.
Looking back at your career, what did you enjoy most?
Young people were always important to me. I have taught a lot, many beginners in chemistry and biochemistry. I was always surrounded by young people. I am happy to have young people in my family around me to this day.
What are the big questions science still needs to answer?
Something that I have never worked on, but fascinates me, is neuroscience. Later in my career, at the Medical Faculty, i made an effort to establish the Neuroscience Institute. Science already knows a lot in this area but we are still at the start. It is a very broad field, it touches upon chemistry, physics, biology and medicine and even philosophy. Neuroscience also confronts us with philosophical questions.
You have just recently celebrated your 95th birthday and still come to your office at the Max Perutz Labs every day. What drives you?
Science is my life. I have many other interests but I think it’s not good to stop working. I always had great interest in languages and philosophy and I did a lot of reading. It is crucial that you keep a broad focus, don’t narrow it down to your science. As vague as philosophy is, it’s a very important corrective for science, which tends to be one-dimensional.
At the Max Perutz Labs, you are every day surrounded by many students and young researchers. What’s your advice to them?
Search for YOUR teacher, don’t just search where you study but look around the world! Some are lucky to have a good teacher where they are but that’s not always the case. Many students pick the nearest university and a subject without knowing the teachers. Don’t do that, find your mentor!
About Hans Tuppy
Professor Hans Tuppy was born in Vienna on July 22, 1924 into a “typical” Austrian family. His father, Karl Tuppy, was born in Prague, and his mother Emma was originally from Brünn. Karl Tuppy served as chief prosecutor in the trial against the murderers of Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dolfuss. He was arrested right after the Anschluss in 1938 and murdered in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Hans Tuppy’s older brother Peter was killed during service in the Wehrmacht in 1944. Hans Tuppy was ordered to Reichsarbeitsdienst but released after a serious arm injury. Thanks to a doctor in the recruitment office who recognized him as the son of public prosecutor Karl Tuppy he was released from the army and was able to start his studies at the University of Vienna where he was able to finish his diploma in 1945.
He started his doctoral work in the laboratory of Professor Ernst Späth at the University of Vienna and obtained his Ph.D. degree in 1948. Shortly thereafter Professor Friedrich Wessely, Director of the Chemistry Institute, recommended Tuppy to Max Perutz for postdoctoral work in Cambridge. Hans Tuppy then joined Sanger's laboratory at Cambridge where he worked on sequencing insulin. Sanger was later awarded the Nobel Prize. Tuppy's next career step was the Carlsberg Laboratory in Copenhagen, from where he returned to the University of Vienna in 1951. In 1963, Tuppy became Professor of Biochemistry at the Institute of Biochemistry at the University of Vienna.
During his career, Professor Tuppy served as the President of the Austrian Science Fund (1974-1982), Rector of the University of Vienna (1983-1985), President of the Austria Academy of Sciences (1985-1987) and the Austrian Government Minister for Science and Research (1987-1989).