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

What I had been doing in Australia was looking at the multiplication of vaccinia viruse by labeling the cell with tritiated thymidine—which is a specific label for DNA, and therefore would label vaccinia virus, which is a known to be a DNA virus. And it was the result of that and looking at cells infected with it that I discovered that each virus particle sets up its own factory…When I went to Cold Spring Harbor as I said I came up with this fantastically complicated and ludicrous experiment, and when that was shot down in flames by Bob Edgar… I had to think. I thought: this is ridiculous. Here am I—Al’s lab has worked out how to isolate DNA molecules without breaking them and how to handle them and they had reached the conclusion that each phage particle contains a single molecule and this is a T-Even (??) DNA phage and I know about auto-radiography, which is labeling a tritiated thymidine and seeing the location of the label. Why don’t I see if I can measure the length of these molecules using this technique? And did some little calculation and decided that it should be possible and only will take two months under film, so there were [a] limited number of experiments I could do—so that’s what I did at Cold Spring Harbor and in the process discovered one rather bizarre feature of doing experiments.

You do an experiment that’s going to last two months and you tuck it away in a little light-tight box. And the moment you tucked it away you realize you could have done a better experiment. So you now do a better version of that experiment and tuck that away in another light-tight box. The coincidence of that is that you lost interest in the first light tight box—but now you think, “Well, gee whiz, the second was clever but it would be even cleverer if I did it in the following way.” So the second light-tight box is going to cease to be interesting. So you have all of these boxes that you’re not interested in—but you do develop the film when you get to the end because you think, “Well, I might as well anyway, it’s no trouble developing film.” So its all these uninteresting experiments that you rely on in the end to get a result. That’s what I did at Cold Spring Harbor. [Then] we went back to Australia and stayed there for two years while I continued to do experiments on the length of DNA and the way it is duplicated and so on and so forth, looking at bacterial viruses and bacteria.

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.