Sydney Brenner on Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory: Making Connections
  Sydney Brenner     Biography    
Recorded: 10 Jun 2002

As I’ve written several times, I met Jim [Watson] in April, 1953 when a group of us including Leslie Orgel and Jack Dunitz went from Oxford to Cambridge to see the DNA model, which of course was published later on that month. And Jim and I went for a long walk that day and Jim also came over to Oxford later on that year in the summer, but really I would say the connection with Cold Spring Harbor is less Jim than [Milislav] Demerec. Because Demerec came to visit the person I worked for, Hinshelwood, and Sir Cyril Hinshelwood did not believe in mutation. But Demerec who was interested in bacterial genetics came to visit him and he—Demerec— Hinshelwood told him about me and he came to see me and it was very funny because I was not the usual Hinshelwood person and so since he heard me talk about what I was doing he went and closed the door—that was Demerec. But he then asked a lot about me and he’s the one who helped me, in fact, he got me a Carnegie Corporation fellowship.

This was in nineteen fifty…It was late 1953. But it enabled me to go to Cold Spring Harbor, in the summer of ‘54. So in the summer of ‘54, I came to America through the Carnegie Corporation and I spent the summer in Cold Spring Harbor. And in that summer, of course, I met Jim again and Francis [Crick] again and so I actually attended the phage course as an auditor and—that is I didn’t do any experiments but I was allowed to attend all the meetings and so on. My partner in the phage course was Bob Edgar.

And of course it was for me a wonderful experience but—I had taught myself phage work before because I worked on phage in Oxford for two years. And of course, Demerec—I’d also, while I was in Oxford, I sort of did a moonlight thing on triptophan biosynthesis and Demerec had all these mutants of salmonella in triptophan, which he was mapping and so I analyzed them with the things that I had learned and of course it was interesting because we found the genes to be in the same order as the biosynthetic stamps, and that was quite early and I have a paper in PNAS of my work at Cold Spring Harbor in 1954. So I’ll say 1954 at Cold Spring Harbor that I met Seymour Benzer. And in fact from that day, we have had very much parallel lives and we’ve always collaborated. And the other person whom I’ve had lifelong connections with was Alan Garen who was working at the time [at] Carnegie. And basically those were the people in the field of microbial genetics of that visit.

Of course, I went up to Woods Hole and met Jim and Francis again. And when I came back to Cold Spring Harbor to talk at the phage meetings at the end of that summer, Seymour had to go—had to leave, and so he asked me to give his paper which I did, so I was a kind of messenger, if you like, reporting the business of a fine structure map of the phage chromosome. I also met Leo Szilard who came to Cold Spring Harbor that year and of course, Meselson and Stahl were there as well. So the people then and it was also arranged quite independently of us, that I would go and spend some time in Berkeley and that’s when I went to work with Günter Stent. That connection is really partly [because] Günter’s brother was in South Africa, but Günter was, of course, part of Caltech and Jack Dunitz had been at Caltech. So I went to work at—I went to Berkeley.

Sydney Brenner is a pioneer in the field of molecular biology. He was born in South Africa in 1927 and received his Ph.D. from Oxford University in 1954. From 1979 to 1986 he served as Director of the Medical Research Council Laboratory for Molecular Biology and from 1986 to 1991, as the Director of the Medical Research Council Laboratory Molecular Genetics Unit, both in Cambridge, England.

Since 1996 he has been the President and Director of Science at the Molecular Sciences Institute in La Jolla and Berkeley. Brenner was honored as a Distinguished Research Professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla in 2000.

In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with Dr. John Sulston and Dr. Robert Horvitz “for their discoveries concerning ‘genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death’” studying the organism C. elegans.