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James Gowans


The Cavendish Lab at Cambridge: Watson and Crick
Avrion Mitchison Scientist
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My older brother, Murdoch, was at Cambridge at the time. He also was doing a degree in Zoology and was doing a Ph.D. in it. He'd been in the war. He'd- In my eyes he was a total hero, although I don't think he ever actually did anything terribly dangerous during the war, because he was also in Operational Research. But he was finding out in Italy how much mud it took to stop a tank. He did lots of other things too, I'm sure, but that was something. Anyway, so he was there and he was in the Cambridge Zoology Department. And the Cambridge Zoology Department in those days was quite, quite different from Oxford. It had a terrific workshop. It was, kind of, the Department hovered round this workshop and students were encouraged to make things. So the whole thing was oriented to towards animal physiology where you needed devices to measure the twitch of grasshopper legs, or whatever. And in his case, he and Michael Swan and Victor Rothchild who was an earlier figure there, all decided to look at a sea urchin development to see- to find out about the changes which took place at fertilisation, the blocked block too polyspermy in the egg, and other things. And Murdoch's part of that was to make a sucker which could be applied to the surface of a cell, and you could suck it and see how much it was deformed, and you got some idea about its strengths. And he made one, in what could've been a notable discovery, but somehow it was years and years before its time, which was that you could only explain the rigidity of the red cell membrane by knowing that in the bi-concave shape, the two sides of the concave disk probably touched, and that strengthened the- the- the shape of the cell. So, anyway, Murdoch was in Trinity, was he a Fellow there at the time? Maybe. I can't actually remember that. And he had become- he made friends, as any person- any thoughtful biologist was bound to do, with the founders of molecular biology, who were the so-called Cavendish Group in Cambridge, because there was a Medical Research Council unit in Cambridge. And that had Crick and Watson in it, it had John Kendrew who was Murdoch's close friend, and other- a small number of other very, very clever people who were laying the foundations of modern molecular biology. Although they were somewhat doing it indirectly because they were concerned with structure mainly. But as part of the study of structure Jim Watson had arrived as a kind of refugee from a lab in Cambridge which was- sorry, in Copenhagen, which was run by a lovely man, Ole Møle who used to show up every now and then. He wasn't- didn't hold it against Jim that Jim had moved on because he wasn't- couldn't provide what Jim wanted. Jim had been a student of Luria's in the United States, and had come to realise that DNA was the most interesting molecule anybody could work on, and there was Francis Crick trying to establish its structure by an entirely new procedure, which was to work in a group of crystallographers where the natural thing would've been to make crystals and look at them. Or make threads which- structured threads and look at them. This is all, you know, part of history now. Everybody knows this. In fact, the structural work was, you know, done by Rosalind Franklin in London and Crick and Watson did something totally original which was to do it by model building. And Jim, at the time, was, I realise now in retrospect, was a rather lonely American and so- I'd learnt by then that the best part of science, in a way, was making friends with- with other people who were doing interesting things. And of course, it was a help in one's own career, it was bound to be. But I didn't quite realise that at the time. Mostly, I just liked making friends, basically because I was looking for these elder brothers. And Jim was exactly the same age as me, but that was no bar to him being an elder brother. And he used to- we made friends and he used to come over to Oxford and I went over to Cambridge. And he behaved like an older brother and gave me lectures on how I should conduct my life, and he's gone on doing that ever since. And sometimes, occasionally, I would say something to him, and you've heard me blowing up at him in the past. But still, I think we've remained friends. But the great success in Jim's life was not me, but my mother. I brought him to Carradale and my mother, who by then was an absolute expert at scooping- recognising talent and scooping it up, she scooped up Jim like nobody's business and again it's a matter of history, it's partly- it's all in his 'The Double Helix', in his book. He used to go on holidays with my mother in South of France, where they were really attached. He'd lost his own mum at the time, and I think she- she filled the gap. And of course, she loved it. Having that book dedicated to her was one of her big moments, no doubt about that.

Avrion Mitchison, the British zoologist, is currently Professor Emeritus at University College London and is best known for his work demonstrating the role of lymphocytes in tumour rejection and for the separate and cooperative roles of T- and B-lymphocytes in this and other processes.

Listeners: Martin Raff

Martin Raff is a Canadian-born neurologist and research biologist who has made important contributions to immunology and cell development. He has a special interest in apoptosis, the phenomenon of cell death.



Listen to Martin Raff at Web of Stories



Duration: 5 minutes, 48 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008