John Cairns on An Interesting Life
  John Cairns     Biography    
Recorded: 14 Jul 2000

Was my life interesting? (Scientifically,) Oh, I see! There’s a Chinese proverb, the curse—May your life be interesting—and that is regarded as the condemnation for misery—you like peace. [???] No… “May you live in interesting times.” That is the curse.

It was interesting, but it seemed to have repeated periods where I would have continued science but forces out of my control just made me a mere cipher. It happened in Uganda where there was nothing to do because no one was interested in whether anybody did anything or not, so the Lab was not equipped for doing things. It happened at Cold Spring Harbor because I had to administer at the instigation of Delbrück and Jim Watson and so I spent five years when I would have been working on DNA…and five years mowing lawns and raising money and stuff like that. In fact, preparing the way for Jim as it turned out.

And then, we haven’t got to my London life but then I was head of a lab and the lease on that lab expired at the time that I reached official retirement age. The lease, it turned out after I had taken the job, was not going to be renewed, and therefore I had to worry about what the hell was going to happen to all the very bright young scientists who were working in the building.

So we had a Quinquennial Review with Matt Meselon and Sydney Brenner and a few other people, and they decided that the solution to this problem was that I should resign from being director so that a younger director could be brought in, this would force the parent organization—ICRF—to fund some kind of continuation for this whole unit. So my retirement was simply to benefit the people who I brought in and then I had to find a job.

I took a job at the Harvard school of Public Health because they offered me one. But people advised me not to do it. And I spent ten years there in something of a hell hole, if you ask me. Luckily after a year there I got a MacArthur Fellowship which is a chunk of money and in those days it was tax free, it’s become taxable now. So I resolved that I would put that money in the bank because it would allow me to retire from Harvard five years sooner than I would otherwise have retired cause I could afford to retire sooner—so I could make my escape sooner. So I had ten years at Harvard, five years at Cold Spring Harbor, and two years in Uganda and that amounts to roughly half of the total.

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.