John Cairns on The Developing Field of Molecular Biology
  John Cairns     Biography    
Recorded: 14 Jul 2000

The notion that biology was undergoing a revolution was something very few people were party to. Certainly in Australia it was not the kind of topic of conversation in the laboratories at all. I don’t think the average person realized the importance of the structure of DNA, and the whole notion that biology was run off a linear code like writing. And this linear period in biology which really began in 1953 has lasted until fairly recently and now alas’ it’s all three-dimensional. At this point I believe it’s become hopelessly complicated and it’s going to stay hopelessly complicated from here on out, But no doubt that will be proved to be wrong.

Well, the issue was—here is this superb structure for DNA and it has two strands and obviously since the bases, you have four letters of the alphabet you have the wherewithal for writing a message. After all—this interview is being written on magnetic tape with a two-letter alphabet which are of zeros and ones, So with a four letter alphabet you could write this interview and a lot more and we use twenty-six letters, and other things use different numbers and letters—so its obviously possible to write anything down in DNA and the length of the message was obviously, absolutely enormous!

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.