John Cairns on A Varied Career
  John Cairns     Biography    
Recorded: 14 Jul 2000

You asked me earlier before this interview began – why I had moved from this subject to that subject, and began and so on and so forth, and I moved from clinical medicine to pathology was because I wanted to escape from my father’s shadow, and my move from pathology to viruses was because I wanted to escape spending my life doing vasimon (??) reactions on soldiers. And then I went to Caltech briefly because they wanted someone to bring cell culture to Australia. It turned out that I didn’t bring it back—it had already arrived by the time I got back so it didn’t matter. I came back an addicted molecular biologist!

The next move again was triggered by something other than myself. The university was setting up departments and everything was growth there, whether it was growth making a garden or building houses or building universities or increasing the size of departments in universities. Of course the departments have certain rivalries and their rivalries unfortunately took the form of how many tenured staff each one had—an absolutely suicidal form of rivalry. I was offered a tenured position if I could convert myself into what reasonably could be called a microbial geneticist, because there was a readership (??) in microbial genetics on the books, and this required I go and learn some microbial genetics.

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.