John Cairns on Scientific Success while Traveling the World
  John Cairns     Biography    
Recorded: 14 Jul 2000

I went there for two years and had an absolutely wonderful time—scientifically the best time of my life. It just went marvelously well, and I think I published eight, nine, ten papers, or something like that, in just under two years with myself as sole author of most of them. So it was a very fruitful period, abruptly brought to a juttering halt by my having as a “quid pro quo” to go and work for the Colonial Office in Uganda [Africa.] So we came, the family came back now with two children; one had been born in England before we went to Australia, and one, a daughter, was born in Australia in the state of Victoria, and therefore we called her Victoria. So we came back to England [from Australia.] That was the days when you went to Australia and back you went by sea…the journey took four and a half weeks…the most fascinating experience.

So we came back and we went out to Uganda—where I quickly discovered that one should never trust a government when it employs you…because it is not employing you because it wants you to do something, it was employing you because it wants to tell someone else that it has employed you, which is quite different. So I find myself working in a place where the employing authority was not interested in whether anything was discovered or not…[the authorities] wanted to be able to say that it had started this laboratory in this protectorate which was Uganda, and [was] therefore not in any way neglecting the protectorate which was about to become independent. So the two and a bit years that we spent there were totally fruitless scientifically speaking. The annoying thing was that I was offered a job while there at Yale but I couldn’t take it because if we left…I would have to have repaid the cost of transporting the whole family out of Uganda…so it was a rather miserable time.

While I was there, I was recruited to go back to Australia, so after Uganda we went back to Australia. By now it is 1955 or something, and so we went back to the new university which had been founded in Canberra—which was a wonderful [city] in those days—a very stimulating city to live in. It is rather like a Saran-wrapped supermarket at the moment, I think…quite boring. But in those days it had 20,000 or 23,000 people [and] two universities [and] the Diplomatic Corps, so everybody was building houses.

It was a very fruitful time for an experimentalist because you worked on your garden. Everyone had to make a garden out of land around their house that had never been cultivated in the history of humankind! So it started off as a rather good imitation of concrete—non-nutritious concrete—and you had to convert this into a garden. So when you turned up for work on Monday morning you could barely move [because] you were so exhausted. So was everybody else! So research laboratories spent much of their time on Mondays and Tuesdays talking and reading—which was very good—and then if you had a big experiment to do you [would] do it on Wednesday and Thursday…or possibly better Thursday and Friday because Saturday—you knew you were going to be out—and Sunday you would be working on your garden. So we spent seven [or] eight years there while Canberra became bigger and the children grew up…It’s an ideal country for children to grow up [in]. I think when I look back…one thing about my career is that the family has lived in the right place each time for our children. It may have not have been the right place for us, but it was the right place for the children. And to live from the ages of zero to ten in Australia is absolutely perfect!

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.