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My first ever research paper


Lab cocktails
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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The next year, having deviated to do one year, the question is: do you go back to medicine? Most of my colleagues did, but I decided I was more interested in this, and so I would stay on and do an Honours degree. And so that's exactly what I did. Now of course my bursary was suspended, but I got a job in the department as a technician. That is, I was paid in lieu of fees, and I also was paid a small salary, and what I essentially did was make a whole set of teaching slides of the human body – histology, helping a technician. So I learnt how to embed human tissue, and, for that matter, animal tissue, but any tissue. I learnt how to section these. I learnt how to stain them and mount them, and so I became a... essentially histology technician and I used to go and work there in the department doing all of this.

It is there also that I discovered the wonders of Puccini's fluid. Now, Puccini's fluid is nothing to do with the opera. Puccini's fluid was a preservative that was consisted of 70%... sorry, one part of 95% alcohol and one part of glycerine, and I had made this up and I was, I think, preserving some tissue in it or clearing it or something… I decided to have a taste of this stuff. And of course glycerine is exactly what you need to cut the taste, the bite of the alcohol and Puccini's fluid, which after having a taste, I… this was a Saturday afternoon – I woke up on the floor of the laboratory Sunday morning, still holding this 100cc measuring cylinder – I'd taken much more than a taste of it. But it actually is the best way to make lab cocktails. And a very good formula is absolute ethanol, and one should not use 100% actually because that has been cleaned by cold distillation with benzene, so it's pretty poisonous. 95% is good enough and one part of that, one part of glycerol and one part of orange juice or something like this, makes something that is so smooth, so tasteless and so effective that it's the best thing you can do, and so Puccini's fluid I think has a lot to recommend it. Actually, this discovery of the cutting edge of glycols was, as you know, used fairly recently when people were adding ethylene glycol to wine to give it that sort of mature taste. Except ethylene glycol is poisonous – it's... it's what you put in your radiators. You know, there was a scandal some time ago that they were poisoning the wine. But glycerine I can tell you is a natural compound and is perfectly safe. However… but that's a little sideline, and… but I learnt to do all of this and there I really started to do some… I really started on doing research.

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: Medicine, medical school, technician, histology, alcohol, glycerine, cocktail, drunk, booze, benzene, ethylene glycol, bootleg

Duration: 4 minutes, 7 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008