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Mother and father


Coming from Eastern European stock
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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Both my parents had come to South Africa from Russia. My father came from Lithuania, and he came to South Africa in 1910. It was a matter of sheer luck that he didn't go to America, 'cause he had a sister in America and his brother was in South Africa – his older brother – and when he got to London, he only had enough money for the boat to Cape Town, which was half the fare to New York, so he took that. His brother, who is someone I remembered very well, was much older than him and had come to South Africa about 20 years before that and was… had served in the Tzar's army in the Crimea in about 1870, 1880. And my father actually left to escape conscription to the army, which is most people… which is what the fate of most people was. My mother came to South Africa in 1922. She came from Latvia; she came from a town called Dvinsk; so she had lived through the entire period of the war and the revolution. My grandfather was an old Bolshevik who had left Russia in… prior to this, about 1907, and of course the family lived throughout the… the war and so on. My father actually left a brother in Russia and he and his family died of the famine in 1923 in a town called… which was then called Ekatrinograd [sic] and I think is now called Ekatrinograd [sic] again, but I believe it got changed to Gorky in the meantime, however – one of those things – so… and this… people had come to South Africa and my father had settled in a town just outside Johannesburg called Germiston where I was born. My father was a shoe repairer – cobbler – and we lived in a… two rooms at the back of his shop, as many people lived in those days. Next door was a… a plumber who'd also come from Eastern Europe, and they also lived in the back of the shop, but they… they advanced economically much more rapidly than we did.

South African Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.



Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories



Tags: South Africa, Russia, Lithuania, 1910, USA, London, Cape Town, New York, 1922, Latvia, Dvinsk, Daugavpils, 1923, Gorky, Nizhny Novgorod, Johannesburg, Germiston

Duration: 3 minutes, 7 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008