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Avrion Mitchison's inspirational immunology


How I ended up in science
Martin Raff Scientist
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You know, people in science break down into those who want to do science from the time they were three months old to those who just fell into it. Well, I’m in the second category, I fell into it when I was 30 years old. So I had done medicine at McGill in Montreal and then did clinical neurology in Boston, and I was in Boston as an immigrant because I thought I might want to stay in the United States. And this was at the time of the Vietnam War, which is a pretty awful time, and they changed the draft law while I was there which meant…

So I was about 30 years old and I would’ve had to go to Vietnam because as an immigrant you had no alternatives, not like Americans who could join the reserves, the National Guard, or go to the public health service and so on, so that meant I had to… I left the country as soon as I heard this was going to happen. Left the country, turned in my green card, came back as an immigrant… as a exchange visitor, so then I had to leave at the end of my training.

So now I had to find a place and something to do for two years, and so when you do academic medicine you go into a laboratory usually for two years. So I’d never done any science so I met a friend in the hallway in Boston and said, you know, what should I do, I should go into a lab? He said, ‘You should do immunology, I did immunology, great subject’. I didn’t even know what it was really and, he said, ’I’ll fix you up with a friend of mine in Paris’. And he called up this guy and within a day I had a spot and a salary to go to Paris. Anyway, so I was telling this to some friends a month or so later and he was a physicist and he sent me this article that was in Science Magazine where it was a review of what’s going on in immunology and it sounded like all of it was happening in London at this place called the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill.

And so I went to this friend, the immunologist, and I said, ‘Well, sounds like I should go to London to this place, sounds like a great place’. He said, ‘You’ll never get in there, I know friends who’ve tried.  You know, Medawar is there and John Humphrey, you’ll never get in’. So I looked at this article, I couldn’t understand a word of it, but I went for the person where I could understand least, a guy called Av Mitchison, and I wrote to him and said, ‘You know, I don't know anything about science or immunology but this sounds really interesting’. And he, being the type of guy he was said, ‘Okay, I’m coming to Boston, let’s talk’. And, anyway, I ended up going there.

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. Recently retired from his professorship at University College, London, these stories were recorded in 2000.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: McGill University, Montreal, Boston, Vietnam War, National Guard of the United States, US Army Reserve, US Public Health Service, Science Magazine, MRC National Institute for Medical Research, Mill Hill, Peter Medawar, John H Humphrey, Avrion Mitchison

Duration: 2 minutes, 27 seconds

Date story recorded: 2000

Date story went live: 13 July 2010