John Cairns on Jim Watson
  John Cairns     Biography    
Recorded: 14 Jul 2000

I thought he was a complete nutter! I met him the first time he turned up at a meeting in Oxford in 1952. The most appalling meeting called, “The Nature of Virus Multiplication,”—that I went to just between coming back from Melbourne and two days later I sailed out for Uganda leaving my father dying of cancer because the Colonial Office wouldn’t let me stay to look after him. So I hated the Colonial Office.

Anyway, Jim was at that meeting and read out a letter he just received from Al Hershey describing the “Blendor” experiment. And the interesting thing, I think, was [that] it didn’t influence anyone else present, [except] possibly Günther Stent who was there, but I don’t think anyone else was moved by that at all because people were not thinking about that kind of thing at all, which I think is a rather interesting piece of negative evidence. [footnote, perhaps???] And Jim…he was bizarre and extreme. Deliberately untied shoelaces and odd socks and general carrying on and so on—and you thought that this guy was a little unusual! And he was not describing what he had done. He was describing a letter that he just received that he thought was very important.

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.