Recorded: 14 Jul 2000
Well, I was born not very far from here in Oxford. I came of an academic background. My grandfather was head of one of the Oxford colleges. And as it happened I was born in the college, which is quite unusual. So I was born in a sense with an academic silver spoon in my mouth. But I think that was a disadvantage. I think there is a sizeable downside to silver spoons because you’re never quite sure whether anything you do was done because you’re skillful or because you had a silver spoon in your mouth.
My father was an enormously distinguished surgeon, a brain surgeon. And in fact part of my silver spoonery was having Sherrington as a godfather. You open your mouth in surprise, right? So, this is a rather difficult thing to live up to.
Anyway, I went to school in Scotland, an extraordinarily bad school in Scotland where I learned football. Because I have a very bad memory and was shortsighted then, I also learned mathematics—because you don’t have to be able to remember anything in mathematics. I didn’t even realize that when the master wrote something on the blackboard that it was being written to be read by the class rather than as an aid memoir for him because I couldn’t read anything written on the blackboard. It wasn’t for a while that this was discovered and I was given glasses because in those days nobody bothered much about whether children could see or hear or anything.
Anyway, I hadn’t realized quite how bad this school was until by chance about two or three years ago I read in Nature [that] the great Physicist James Clerk Maxwell went to that school. Curiously enough that showed me the school was very bad because the school had only one alumnus that it boasted about and that was the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson. [The school] never mentioned Maxwell because it didn’t know anything about physics and didn't realize [that] he was very distinguished—so that told me it was a very bad school. So when I came to Oxford in 1939, I really was in the process of forgetting Latin and Greek and mathematics and trying to learn science. So I never had a proper scientific background, which I deeply regret.
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.