Sir John Gurdon, Dolly the sheep and tipping the hairdresser

What makes a great world leading scientist tick?

Nobel prizewinner Sir John Gurdon provies some fascinating answers in the latest Sunday Times column, A Life In the Day, in which we learn about his daily routine, as well as his pioneering research which he hopes will one day give people new cells of their own genetic kind to replace those worn out by age or disease.

While the very eminent and distinguished scientist has his own Cambridge lab named after him, we are told his Nobel prize does not entitle him to a personal car parking space there, a gift which would be highly prized due to their scarcity in the university city.

Interestingly, Sir John’s scholastic achievements failed to impress his biology master at Eton master who wrote in his school report:

“I believe he has ideas about becoming a scientist. On his present showing this is quite ridiculous; if he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part, and of those who have to teach him.”

This report has been framed and has pride of place on Sir John’s wall at his home.

I very much hope that later this year I will be able to meet Sir John if he is able to speak to the Cambridge Network group I belong to where I recently saw Sir Paul Nurse, and I suggested that Sir John would be a perfect speaker too.

Here is an extract from the Sunday Times article where Sir John eloquently describes his day in the lab – his pioneering work with cloning frogs led to the creation of Dolly the sheep.

I’m typically in the lab before 8, and, if it’s an experiment day, the first thing to do is look at the eggs and embryos of frogs from the day before. I use the South African clawed frog, which can lay about 4,000 eggs a time if given hormone injections. If you wanted the same amount of material from mice, you’d need about 100,000 of them. When I started out in science we didn’t know that all cells in the body have the same genes, and it was my work which proved that they did. In 1962, when I was a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford University’s zoology department, I proposed that a mature body cell of any type, such as the liver, muscle or skin, contained all the genetic information needed to turn itself into another type of cell.

I tested the idea by replacing the nucleus of a frog’s egg with the nucleus of a cell from a tadpole’s intestine. When the modified egg grew into a tadpole, I became the first person to clone an animal from a single cell. My work cloning frogs led to the creation of Dolly the sheep by scientists in Edinburgh in 1996.

If you are wondering about Sir John’s fabulous blond locks, he is fortunate to still have a thick head of hair at 79 which he cuts his hair himself.

However, despite his sheer brilliance, one solution Sir John couldn’t fathom was how much to tip the hairdresser, and he found it annoying to  book an appointment, so for the last 35 years he has cut his own hair very two to three weeks!

And  by all accounts, Sir John is very fortunate to have a very practical wife who is a genius at finding whatever he loses – and even deduced that he had once dropped his lost credit card in the gutter while getting out of the car.

Just goes to show how true it is that behind every great man …..


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