John Cairns on Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Transition
  John Cairns     Biography    
Recorded: 14 Jul 2000

There was a genuine mood…everyone, all the thinking people were terribly worried that Cold Spring Harbor might just go down the tubes completely and disappear. Carnegie, in the form of Caryl Haskins who was the head of Carnegie at the time, believed that Demerec had always bled money from Carnegie to support the Bi-Lab side of things, and therefore confidently predicted that when that surreptitious diversion of money stopped—the Lab would go bust—which I got because Walter Page’s brother Arthur was on Caryl Haskins’s Board of Trustees. So that’s how I got that little piece of information. So there was going to be no help from Carnegie.

Then along come a group of people headed by [E.L.] Tatum and [Patrick] Ryan—which is quite bizarre because neither of them had any real connection with Cold Spring Harbor at all—and they proposed to set up a different organization, and it was representing, I think, eight scientific institutions and if you ask what is the common denominator for these scientific institutions, [it] is that, I think, none of them was a member of Associated Universities who were the natural people to run Cold Spring Harbor because they ran Brookhaven [National Laboratory.] I was told by Barbara [McClintock], who might not have been a reliable informant, that Tatum and Ryan went along to Associated Universities—they’d taken on somehow mysteriously responsibility for saving Cold Spring Harbor—and they went to Associated Universities and said, “We would like you to take over Cold Spring Harbor, but we will only let you take over Cold Spring Harbor if you put in two million dollars right now.” To which Associated Universities said, “Get lost!” So at that point Tatum and Ryan were free to set up their own organization.

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.