Born in Oxford, he attended the Dragon School there and then Clifton College, Bristol, before studying for the Natural Science Tripos at Trinity College, Cambridge. After graduating in 1939 he served in the Ministry of Aircraft Production, rising to the rank of Wing Commander, working first on airborne radar and then heading operations research in the Middle East and Far East theatres.
While in Ceylon, Kendrew met JD Bernal who suggested that after the war he should work with Max Perutz at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, which he did. At the Cavendish and the Royal Institution, Kendrew and Perutz determined the structures of haemoglobin and myoglobin using X-ray crystallography and (new at the time) electronic computers. They both won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work in 1962.
In 1962 he became both Deputy Chairman of the new Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge and Deputy Scientific Advisor to the Ministry of Defence. During the 1960s and 1970s he was a central figure in establishing the European Molecular Biology Organisation and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, of which he was Director General from 1975 until his retirement on bad terms in 1982.
During the 1970s and 1980s he was an officer, including six years as President, of the International Council of Scientific Unions and was President of the British Association in 1974. From 1982 he served as President of St John's College, Oxford, for seven years.
Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 2001, 47: 311-332.
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