John Cairns on Working at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
  John Cairns     Biography    
Recorded: 14 Jul 2000

Well, we stayed there and it was absolute heaven with people staying in the lab and doing experiments at least during the summer. The whole year it is heaven! Because you get up in the morning and you put on your dressing gown and your bedroom slippers—and you go to the lab and you start your culture going and then you come back and have breakfast and you sit in the sun reading the New York Times—Heaven! …Then you finish that and have a cup of coffee—go to the lab and now your cultures are ready for the experiment and you do the experiment and being “phage” you can get the answer by six in the evening so then you have dinner and you go back to the lab and do the next experiment, which is going to run during the night. So you do really two days work for every one. This is the recipe invented, I think by Al Hershey—which on one occasion produced disastrous results!

Because I remember when I was there he had a visit from Maurice Wilkins, the co-sharer of the Nobel Prize with Francis [Crick] and Jim [Watson]. And Maurice Wilkins turns up—I’m trying to think—no, I won’t describe Maurice Wilkins—turns up having taken, strangely, a taxi from as it was then called, Idlewild Airport [now John F. Kennedy Airport.] He had taken a taxi all the way to Cold Spring Harbor—which cost him an arm and a leg—and he wants to see Al Hershey. So he chats to Al Hershey for a bit and Al says, “I really got to go and switch off my centrifuge.” So Maurice Wilkins waits. No sign of Al after an hour—he come wandering around saying “Where could he be?” And I think, “Gosh, I know, it’s the middle of the day—and [after] Al has had his morning work he goes home he makes himself dinner, an evening meal at say 1 o’clock. He then changes out of his clothes and into his pajamas…goes to bed and falls asleep and he gets up and he has breakfast at six in the evening—then he comes into the lab by about eight and works through till about three in the morning—and he goes home and has dinner and gets into his pajamas and so on and so forth. So I said, “I bet Al’s just gone home, so come along and we’ll bang on the door.” He [Al Hershey] lived in Osterhout then, so [I] bang on the door—nothing—dead silence. Poor Maurice Wilkins just goes back to Idlewild—because that’s the end of the thing because Al is sound asleep. He’d [only] seen him briefly…and then Al goes off to centrifuge and then just forgets!

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.