Austen Fox Riggs II
- Early Years
My early interests in science were framed by many fortunate
circumstances. My father had founded and was headmaster of an
elementary boarding school for boys in
. The school was in a beautiful setting where I would spend countless
hours exploring open meadows, fields, woods and streams, usually
alone. My parents provided enormous encouragement for all my
interests. At the age of ten my passion was snakes and I thought that
I would become a herpetologist. I kept three foot long black snakes in
my bureau drawers until one day a housekeeper came to put some clothes
away. Clearly this was not in her job description and she left
My interests soon shifted to birds after a single early morning
birding excursion for the boys with Robert Cushman Murphy, an expert
ornithologist at the
of Natural History in
. Birds became my passion and I kept detailed records.
Until my junior year at
I was sure that I would become an ornithologist, but I took George
Wald’s wonderful, eye-opening biochemistry course, was hooked and
soon entered his laboratory as a graduate student. He suggested that I
study the metamorphosis of hemoglobin in the transition from tadpole
to frog because he had just discovered that there were changes in the
visual system during metamorphosis. Although oxygen binding by the
adult hemoglobin was strongly pH dependent, that of the tadpole
appeared almost pH independent. This behavior could only be explained
decades later with the discovery by the Ruth and Reinhold Benesch of
the role of organic phosphates in controlling oxygen affinity.
Throughout this period I was greatly inspired by Jeffries Wyman.
binding of lamprey hemoglobin was then investigated. Although the data
clearly showed that oxygen binding was cooperative, we attributed this
to an ill-defined experimental error because the hemoglobin was
believed always to be monomeric and so could not bind oxygen
cooperatively. The message: never sweep under the rug data which
don’t fit! Robin Briehl
found the answer in the self association of deoxy lamprey hemoglobin.
the early 1950s enzymologists were finding that mercurials inhibited
many enzymes by reacting with their sulfhydryl groups. A similar
reaction in rhodopsin was soon found by Paul Brown and George Wald.
This led to my finding that mercurials greatly altered the oxygen
affinity and cooperativity of hemoglobin with no loss of oxygen
binding capacity. This finding soon led Max Perutz to use mercurial
binding to solve the phase problem in the crystallography of the
hemoglobin. Soon thereafter the beautiful structure of the molecule
emerged. Why were mercurials not tried earlier? Part of the reason may
be that sulfhydryl groups were widely believed from the work of Anson
and Mirsky to be reactive only after denaturation of the hemoglobin.
These early studies led to the continuing life-long fascination with
the structure-function relations of diverse hemoglobins ranging from
yeast and worms to man.
my junior year in college I was invited by George Bell and Richard
Bryant one December to go winter camping and snowshoeing after
Christmas in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. But, I said, I have
never been snowshoeing. There’s nothing to it, I was told. It turned
out that they had never done it either. Within three years (1950)
George and I had organized an expedition to
to climb Yerupaja, at 21, 670 feet the highest unclimbed peak in the
Western hemisphere. Dave Harrah and Jim Maxwell succeeded in reaching
the summit with the cost of frozen toes. They narrowly avoided
disaster near the summit when a cornice upon which Dave was standing
broke and he fell 150 feet until stopped by the rope.
years later (1952) I had dreamed up the idea of taking aerial
photographs of the mountains of
, had learned to fly and proceeded in a Piper Cub to fly to
with George Bell. Along the Southwest coast of
we came to a large mass of ominous clouds which could be avoided by
going out to sea or over the mountains. We went over the mountains
towards our destination airport. Deciding that we must be abeam the
airport, we turned West, descended into the clouds and shortly
emerged, to our surprise, in a gorge. George later remarked, after his
participation in an expedition to climb
, the second highest peak in the world, that he thought that this
flight was the most dangerous thing he had ever done.
early adventures led to a life-long interest in both climbing
mountains and flying. The same year of the Peruvian flight I met
Claire Killam, then a graduate student at Radcliffe, and with our
marriage began the most wonderful adventure of all.