John Cairns on Caltech: Finding a Home
  John Cairns     Biography    
Recorded: 14 Jul 2000

I went to Caltech and this was Caltech in the era when [George] Beadle was Chairman of Biology and there was [Max] Delbrück and [Renato] Dulbecco and several of the sort of founding fathers of phage and the origins of molecular biology.

I arrived—this was just me, the family was left behind, and I arrived, was put up in the Faculty Club. I hadn’t yet received the grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Faculty Club was [a] very expensive, very posh place. So I got through half my capital in the first three days staying in the Faculty Club and realized I couldn’t stay there. So I asked someone in the lab whether they could find me somewhere that I could take refuge, and said this guy Jan Drake, who until recently was the editor of the journal Genetics, and wrote a splendid book on mutations [and was] a noted bacterial geneticist. I asked him and he said, “Well, I’m living in a house but it really is organized by someone called [Matt] Meselson who’s not here at the moment—he’s away, and I can’t formally invite you to stay there because Matt might not like you. But while he’s away I’m sure you can stay.” So I thought to myself, well I can’t turn this offer down, but I can tell I’m not going to like this guy Matt Meselson one bit. So anyway I stayed there.

The house had Drake and Howard Temin and the missing Matt Meselson. So while there I quickly arranged to stay in lodgings further down the road so I wouldn’t have to take this frightful exam of Matt Meselson looking at me to see if whether he approved of me or not, in the end at least I was allowed to eat there. Matt used to do the shopping and I think Jan Drake did the shopping as well and some of the cooking and Howard Temin did the housework and I did the washing up. And so we stayed in this house and this was the time of the Meselson/Stahl density transfer experiment—so this was the topic at every mealtime. As a consequence of this, I became indoctrinated into the beginnings of molecular biology because this was 1957, four years after the double helix

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.