Sir John Gurdon Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Revolution in the Biological Sciences: Conversation wtih Sir John Gurdon, Professor of Cell Biology, Cambridge University, Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute of Cancer and Developmental Biology, March 16, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Background

Professor Gurdon, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in the southern part of England, in a small village, in the area where they expect people largely to be stockbrokers, though my family was not.

And you chose not to be! Looking back, how have your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

They were extremely supportive in the sense I was accorded private education, not the state sector. It was a better education that way, which was rather expensive, and they kindly provided that. When the time came to aim for a particular career, my father thought the most appropriate thing would be a career in either the army or in the financial world and arranged some introductions. But fortunately for me, I was refused entry to the army for the national service, a piece of good luck. I was actually a competitive squash player at the time and rather fit, but the family doctor decided I was not suitable for the army and diagnosed my slight cold as bronchitis, and that eliminated any possibility, thank heavens, of entering the army as a career.

What did your parents think of your going into science?

My mother could always see that I was fascinated by biological things. Even at school I used to grow thousands of caterpillars to make moths, to the intense annoyance of my tutor. But I had a fascination for these things, and I think it was really she particularly who enabled me to switch from my education, which was completely non-scientific, into a scientific direction.

You were identified early in your educational career as somebody who was not qualified for science, correct?

That's correct, yes. I have this rather amazing report which, roughly speaking, says I was the worst student the biology master had ever taught.

[laughs]

He goes on to say that he had heard there was some possibility of me becoming interested in science, but this would be, to quote him, "a total waste of time" both on his part and on mine, and this whole idea should be immediately discouraged.

At what level of your education did you get this news?

This was age fifteen, when I had done one first semester of science, and that was the end of it, no more science from then on, until later on when I was able to return to the subject.

How did this affect you, your self-esteem, so to speak?

It was discouraging, but curiously enough in retrospect, if you have bad teaching (which was in fact the case, because this was just after the World War), you're better off not being taught a subject badly and therefore come back to it when you can take it from a different point of view. So, in a curious sort of way I see it as an advantage to have not had to do the dreary kind of school science that people did have to do at that time.

I would imagine a key factor in being a good scientist is being able to stand on your own feet and go in new directions.

Yes, I think that's right. I had another piece of curious good fortune, in the sense that I was extremely interested in insects and always have been, and I'd actually applied to do a Ph.D. with the entomology department, but again, luckily for me, I was refused as being a bad student, and then took up embryology with a very sympathetic person. So, I moved into that slightly by default, but what a happy situation for me it was, because actually entomology in those days was a dull subject, there weren't really any scientific questions as there clearly are in development.

Many of the people I interview talk often about doing what you want to do, really liking it. It sounds like this was a ballast for you as you moved through different periods of your career, because you really were drawn to the subject matter.

That's correct. I always had a fascination for it. The interesting thing is, nowadays my career would have been impossible in the sense that I did classics, ancient Greek and Latin, all my school time and then had to switch to science. My poor parents had to pay an extra year of private tuition to get into science. In those days they were actually short of students in Oxford, and so I received a curious letter from the admissions tutor in Oxford that said they would accept me on two conditions. One was that I came into residence immediately, in a week's time, and the second was that I did not study the subject in which I had been examined. This is unimaginable!

So, you were being ordered not to become a classicist!

Absolutely. They said I'm not suitable for that. I later met the person socially. He was the man, [Hugh] Trevor-Roper, who later became Lord Dacre, very involved in the last days of Hitler, and he told me privately that his mind was on greater things and he'd realized he hadn't filled the places in the college, and so he looked down the list of unsuitable people.

So, I guess we can say that fortuna was at work here.

Absolutely, a lot of it.

What did you do your dissertation on?

My Ph.D. dissertation? That was indeed on the subject I still work on, which is to say nuclear transplantation, and that was thanks to my supervisor, a wonderful man who put me onto that as a very novel subject, practically rather a challenge, because like everything it didn't work at all at first, but he was persuasive and had ideas, and it finally did. So, that was an extraordinary piece of good luck to be able to work with someone who was an outstanding mentor.

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