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Passing the time with medicine
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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I then… I had a good friend called Tony Allison at the time, who was doing science with me, and Le Gros Clark, who was professor of anatomy at Oxford, came out to South Africa in 1946 to see the anatomical remains – the palaeontological remains. And at this stage, he invited me to go back to Oxford to the anatomy department there, where I could continue to do science, because you... you must remember that a little bit later, Harold Daitz went to Le Gros Clark. So there were those connections between Dart and Le Gros Clark and… he also invited Tony Alison. I went to see Raymond Dart and said, 'What shall I do?' And Dart was a very wise man. He was at this time the Dean of the medical school, a great anatomist of the old school, had come from London, had seen Owen and all those people there. So, he said, 'Look, it sounds to me what you're interested in would be called biochemistry, but there are no jobs for people in biochemistry unless they are in medical schools, so what I advise you to do is to go back and finish medicine, and then you can become a biochemist'. And I took a lot of advice from people and everybody said… well, yeah, they agreed; there would be a dead end; there's no future in science as science at that time, because I'm talking about 1947; and the best thing is go back and finish medicine. So I had four years to do. So I stayed on in the department doing research and sort of did medicine part-time and… and what I did was I went on working there and used to just polish off the course in the last six weeks of the year, so… because I just was totally uninterested. The first year of going back wasn't too bad because we did pathology and bacteriology and that was still science, I did very well then. But then we started clinical work, and I... I just wasn't suited to that. I didn't like… I didn't like the whole structure of the teaching hospital; that is, I felt very much that treating patients as things is the wrong thing and that since I thought it was very hard to be a scientist and not do this, then I preferred not to do it at all. So in fact, I think I'm the only person who's ever passed medicine who had never seen a patient until his examination because I never went, and in fact one of the great stories is that I failed my medicine because I was asked to smell this patient's breath, incorrectly diagnosed Maclean's toothpaste, where I should have diagnosed acetone, you see; so the visiting professor from… the examining professor from Cambridge passed me… failed me.

South African Sydney Brenner 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: Oxford University, South Africa, 1946, London, 1947, Cambridge University, Tony Alison, Wilfrid Le Gros Clark, Harold Daitz, Raymond Dart

Duration: 3 minutes, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008