John Cairns on Hershey and McClintock: Nobel Prize Recipients
  John Cairns     Biography    
Recorded: 14 Jul 2000

Al [Hershey], of course, was quite different. I don’t know if you’ve heard the story about when he won a Nobel Prize?

When [Barbara McClintock] heard she got a Nobel Prize she said, “Oh, dear!” and rolled up her eyes because she had been given too many prizes. You know—once you get one prize, they give you all the others. I think she wasn’t very happy about getting it. She probably was happy but she wanted to make out that she wasn’t.

But Al [Hershey]—First of all, we had a wonderful party for him. It was a great coming together because we had streams of telephone calls coming both into the house and into the lab from the local community saying, “You must be having a party for Al! If we bring six bottles of champagne, can we come?” So we ran a continuous party in Airslie for the local community and one of the Page sons actually damaged his wrist opening champagne bottles in the kitchen. He opened too many! So it was a great coming together of the Lab and the community. Utterly spontaneous! Not arranged at all!

Later Al went for an interview on TV in New York and his account of it was absolutely typical. He said, “Well, never had anything like that before. They asked me, I suppose, straightforward questions and then they said, ‘What are your hobbies, Doctor?’ And I thought about it and I realized I never thought about that before. So I took a bit of timeout. I’m afraid it must have been a bit awkward for them and then I said, ‘Daydreaming.’ I’m afraid it was a bit of a conversation stopper.”

You can see what happened. You see, he really had never thought about this beforehand. He wondered, when I’m not working what is the thing I spend the most time on? And he thought about it quite seriously. And he came up with the answer that is probably true for most of us and then said it. And then everyone in the studio is thinking, “My god, is this true of me as well?” And the whole interview ground to a frightful halt. Well, that is the essence of Al.

Now Elfie [Dr. Cairns wife] was thinking of writing either an account of Cold Spring Harbor—[an] autobiography or something like that, and was talking to Al about it once. He said that he wondered about that too, but thought that he couldn’t really do it because, “Whenever I think of the past—I think of all the unkind things that I have done. Often when shaving I think about this and I groan out loud,” he said. So there, again, you know, you ask him a question and he thinks—and then he gives you the true answer—and this is so unexpected. He was an amazing man!

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.