John Cairns on Beginning a Career in Medicine
  John Cairns     Biography    
Recorded: 14 Jul 2000

I think there is a tendency for sons of doctors to become doctors. I think it was that [that] prompted me into a career in medicine. But then it wasn’t until I got into clinical medicine that I felt at all happy because I really loved it and found that I could do it and that my memory was good enough for that. I could do all the kinds of things that were needed in clinical medicine, but at the same time I realized that life in clinical medicine would be impossible because I’d always be under the shadow of my father, so I had to change, indeed. My two sons are still somewhat under the shadow of their grandfather because they are always being asked “Are you any relation?”…So I decided to get out – so I decided to move away from that into clinical pathology. It was just at the end of the war and they were still drafting people, and drafting doctors so I would have been drafted into the army where as a pathologist I would have spent my time doing vasamin (??) reactions on syphilitic soldiers [which is] about as boring an occupation as you can possibly imagine!

There was, however an alternative, which was to go and work for the Colonial Office which needed medical people in the far-flung corners of their empire that has disappeared. I thought that one of the things they wanted was to get people who knew about viruses and [since] there were no young people who knew about viruses in England in 1947 or 1949…they decided they had to train them. So I went out to Australia to learn about viruses in the lab of a famous virologist called [Sir MacFarlane] Burnett who worked in Melbourne.

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.