John Cairns on Alfred Hershey
  John Cairns     Biography    
Recorded: 14 Jul 2000

And the suggestion was that I should go and work with “X,” who shall be nameless, and I had a very low opinion of X as a scientist. So I said I didn’t want to go there but...would like to go and work with [Alfred] Hershey. My reason for saying that was that I actually didn’t want to go anywhere and I was sure Hershey would say no because I knew of him as a kind of hermit. I hadn’t met him…but his reputation as a hermit was worldwide.

And so I said I’d like to go and work with Hershey. So then I formally wrote him a letter saying—I would like to come and work with you. [There was a] typical “Al” response—you know these grease proof pencils that you can write on glass with? Well, on the bottom of my letter was, "Fine, come whenever you like! Sinc[erely,] Al..” And so that meant I was now committed to go—and I got a fellowship from NIH to do this. Foolishly, not perhaps foolishly, but it was unfortunate as it turned out later, is I didn’t look at this fellowship and didn’t realize it was a standard postdoc fellowship. Well, of course I was now umpteen years postdoc! This was 1960 [and] I qualified in medicine four years earlier so I hardly counted as a postdoc! No, did I say four years earlier? No, fourteen years earlier. And so I didn’t really count as a postdoc. But I didn’t pay any attention. It obviously paid enough money to survive on—[that was a] blunder, as it turned out.

So…the whole family goes off—and we stay in what used to be called the Carnegie Dorm, which is now called something [else]. Everything changes its name—rather like hermit crabs! Cold Spring Harbor’s always been renamed. It’s an old tradition where you get rid of someone who is out of favor and you name it after somebody else and then they’re not going to last very long.

Anyway, so we stayed in the Carnegie dorm. I remember we were shown it by Al Hershey—and previously there had been a Japanese postdoc who had been working with him who’d been staying with his wife and one or two children…whose name began with an “M” [Y. Minagawa]. I have forgetten what it was—he had been studying an internal protein of phage T2 which is injected into the cell. Quite interesting! And, a typical story about Al Hershey—Al Hershey said [to Minagawa] “Is the apartment warm enough?” [Minagawa replied,] “Oh, yes, very warm, very warm, yes!” Only Al would have gone one step further and he said “Is it too warm?” [Minagawa replied,] “Oh, yes, very hot, very, very hot!” It turned out that they hadn’t realized that the thermostat on the wall was a controlling mechanism and had been set at about 85 [degrees] for the entire year. “Very hot, very hot” was what it was! Luckily, we knew. We were able to control it. But that’s what gave me the first insight that Al is a person who takes nothing for granted and pursues subjects relentlessly to their very end.

So we moved in there, after a month or so which was very difficult, it was during the summer and, I think we arrived in May or June or—no, I arrived first and was there for the ’60 symposia, I think. I arrived before the family and I forget where I stayed. But then the family arrived and we moved into the Carnegie Dorm.

At first, I found it very difficult because I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do and I designed a fantastically complicated experiment to do with bacteriophage which would measure things that we were supposed not to be able to measure these things at the same time. What was the P-32 content of a virus, and what was its genotype and so on. I remember describing this to Bob Edgar—who was one of the early phage people—as he was walking. He was teaching the phage course [at the time] and he’s walking from the [phage] lab to the grass lawn under the Carnegie Dorm because there was square dancing that night. And I explained this experiment to him. And he instantly (did) an impromptu dance. Danced his way along Bungtown Road, as if my experiment was a square dance. You do this and you take a partner and you do that and you then you take two steps forward…and you do this…and so on and so forth. So this lasts the whole way along Bungtown Road after which he went off to do square dancing…I realized that this experiment was possibly the stupidest thing that you could possibly imagine! So it wasn’t until I had been through that frightful catharsis that I got down to anything interesting.

John Cairns, physician and molecular biologist, received his degree in medicine from Oxford University in 1946. Cairns worked as a virologist at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, at the Virus Research Institute in Entrebbe, Uganda and at the Curtain School of Medical Research in Canberra.

From 1960-61, Cairns spent his sabbatical at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory under Alfred Hershey. He returned to serve as director of the Lab from 1963-1968, while continuing his research on DNA replication and initiating the technique autoradiography. During Cairns’s tenure, he saw Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory officially form from an amalgamation of the Long Island Biological Association’s Biological Laboratory and the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Genetics. Cairns remained a staff member until 1972 when he was appointed head of the Mill Hill Laboratory of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. Cairns subsequently worked at the Harvard School of Public Health until his retirement in 1991.

In addition to Cairns’s scientific endevours, he is also one of the editors of Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology.