John Cairns on Being Director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
  John Cairns     Biography    
Recorded: 14 Jul 2000

I was invited to the symposium on animal viruses because…I suppose I had been working on vaccinia virus—I reported about the shape of different DNA molecules and so on and so forth…It was nice to get back. I think I stayed with the [James and Jan] Eisenmans but I don’t really remember whether I stayed somewhere. While I was at the symposium—Paul Margolin, who was one of the people that Demerec had hired and was now working in James Lab, and [Arthur] Chovnick was director [of the Biological Laboratory.] Paul Margolin said to me: “Oh, the Lab’s in a terrible mess and nobody knows what’s going to happen and its all going bankrupt,”…there was obviously, the place was in a great mess and Chovnick was very depressed. Paul Margolin said “Oh, you should come and be director,” and I said “Well, why me?” and he didn’t have any very good answer. And I said, “I wouldn’t even consider it unless I’m sure that everyone who is here actually wants me.” And I went…to Al [Hershey] and Barbara [McClintock,] I guess they were the people I asked, “What about this?” And Barbara said, “Yes, you should come and do it,” and Al…typically, put his finger on it. “Gosh, it’s not a job that I would like,” said Al and left it with that. And so I left it at that, not quite sure about anything and duly returned to Australia. And then I got a letter—I think in September—from Francis Ryan who said that he was the Vice-Chairman of a board that was trying to set up a new laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor and it was all a bit complicated and was I interested? So I wrote back saying that I thought I was. Maybe at some point in the proceedings, either before that letter or afterwards, I wrote to Max Delbrück. I don’t remember whether I wrote to Jim [Watson] or not at all. Jim would know because he keeps everything, but I don’t know whether I wrote to Jim. But the upshot of all of that was that both Max Delbrück and Jim said that I must do the job. Jim said, “You’ve got to!” No…Max said, “You’ve got to do it.” Then I think they asked for letters of recommendation because I’d never met Francis Ryan.

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.