Sydney Brenner on Jim Watson, “Lucky Jim”
  Sydney Brenner     Biography    
Recorded: 10 Jun 2002

Uh, well, you know you have to say nearly all these things you would call “lucky,” lucky because they are rare. They all want things. I think you have to be, you know, [have a] prepared mind to receive this luck. I think it was actually Jim and Francis getting together that I think, you know, gave the kind of increased activation energy to do it. I think, you see, the whole—I think the idea—if you look at the earlier part of this, the sort of idea that there would be a kind—that was, in fact, other people suggested it. Darwin suggested it, my professor suggested it as completely ridiculous what Hinsherwood suggested. But basically there was no way to see how this could be done. And of course, the whole idea that you translate this into this; because you see for most people, up to that point—and just let me, let me go back a bit because the two other people, the work of two other people made the revolution; the one was Fred Sanger, who actually proved that proteins have a chemical structure. I was actually in Oxford where Fred taught and where I, you know, Robert Robinson, the chemist, got up and said, “Well, we all thought proteins weren’t defined things.” But Dr. Sanger has proved they have a structure. And of course the structure was in the form of the amino acid sequence. And the other thing is Seymour Benzer, who showed with the fine structure of the gene that the actual scale of this was comparable to single nucleotide—to the nucleotide structure.

So the old idea of the gene as a state undefined, that went the moment this happened. Well, you know, everything became clear. So I think that too, that Jim did it. Francis did it. I think it’s not luck. I mean, luck says only chance ruled. But I mean they had actually seen the problem. And you see it’s a combination of Francis knowing about diffraction from helical structures, Jim, knowing a bit about biology, the correct interpretation of [Erwin] Chargaff’s findings; all of that goes into it. And you can’t say it’s luck because—you see, luck would be that if someone generated random ideas and they picked it up, so I think my view is that luck isn’t—I mean its like saying you’re lucky to be—to be born at the right time.

Sydney Brenner is a pioneer in the field of molecular biology. He was born in South Africa in 1927 and received his Ph.D. from Oxford University in 1954. From 1979 to 1986 he served as Director of the Medical Research Council Laboratory for Molecular Biology and from 1986 to 1991, as the Director of the Medical Research Council Laboratory Molecular Genetics Unit, both in Cambridge, England.

Since 1996 he has been the President and Director of Science at the Molecular Sciences Institute in La Jolla and Berkeley. Brenner was honored as a Distinguished Research Professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla in 2000.

In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with Dr. John Sulston and Dr. Robert Horvitz “for their discoveries concerning ‘genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death’” studying the organism C. elegans.