Michael Ashburner on Charlie Thomas
  Michael Ashburner     Biography    
Recorded: 03 Jul 2003

Charlie Thomas was then in the Harvard Medical School. He was said to be the only professor in medical school who had his own private bathroom. He was very rich. He’s still alive and in California now. He had begun to work on eukaryotic chromosome structure. And he had a party in Newton, Cambridge to welcome a man called Mick Callan. Now Mick Callan was a great cytologist. Mick had been the examiner of my Ph.D. and was coming over to work with Charlie for the summer and there was a party at Charlie’s to welcome Mick. I went and I took with me a young girl whose name I’ve forgotten. She was very pretty and very small. She had been in Cambridge at the LMB [Laboratory of Molecular Biology] when Francis Crick first saw her, he stopped, he looked her up and down and he said, “Is that all of you?” Anyway, she was a postdoc of Alex Rich. I went to this party with her and it was very grand. It was a big house in Newton. And this girl, Hannah Freidman and I were the youngest people by a factor of two.

I met Charlie actually the first time at this meeting [CSHL Symposium] [Dr. Ashburner: Do you recall if you meet him at the 1970 Symposium?]. It was in Blackford, very late at night. I was very drunk; I was talking to a girl and he was interrupting me. So I told him in no uncertain terms to go away.

I didn’t know who he was, and he said, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m Michael Ashburner.” And he said, “I’m Charlie Thomas,” and we got on really well after that. And Charlie—there was a controversy about chromosome structure at the time as to whether chromosomes had one or multiple strands. Charlie distributed a lapel badge to people, which said “I am a uniminist.” I believe in one strand of chromosomes.

He was an interesting man. He used to go gliding. He once took Sol Spiegelman gliding. I’ve forgotten who told me this story. I remember when it was told to me, but I’ve forgotten who told it to me. Sol Spiegelman was very short, much shorter than I am. I mean he was maybe 4’6”. Sol was in the glider; it’s a two people glider, so Sol was sitting right behind Charlie. Charlie told Sol to take the controls, which he did but the glider started behaving very erratically. Charlie said, “Push the left pedal. Push the left pedal!” And Sol said, “I can’t reach the pedals.” Sol was a great scientist. He was in New York and slightly eccentric. He’s a great man.

Michael Ashburner, a leader in Drosophila Genetics and bioinformatics, received his B.A. (1964), M.A. (1968), Ph.D. (1968) and Sc.D. (1978) from the University of Cambridge, where he is currently professor of Biology in the Department of Genetics and a Professional Fellow of Churchill College.

He has been the joint head of European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and was co-founder of Flybase, the primary online database for Drosophila genetics and molecular biology, the Gene Ontology Consortium, an effort to coordinate biological databases through a defined taxonomy of gene function, and the Crete Meetings, a bi-annual event focusing on the developmental and molecular biology of Drosophila melanogaster.

Among many honors, he is the recipient of the G.J. Mendel Medal (Czech Republic 1998) and the George W. Beadle Medal (Genetics Society of America 1999).

Michael Ashburner