Hamilton Smith on An Early Interest in Science
  Hamilton Smith     Biography    
Recorded: 03 Mar 2006

I grew up by teen—well, from 6 to 18, I grew up in Champaign-Urbana, IL. But you know my most vivid memories really were when I was very young in New York – I was born in New York City. My father was a graduate student at Columbia, studying education. And, you know, I think my scientific interest really stems from that very early experience, because I can vividly remember my father coming in one day with a one dollar Gilbert chemistry set, in a little case. And there were maybe a dozen different chemicals, some test tubes, and a little burner and so on, and a spoon that you could burn sulfur in. And I can remember, with his help of course, and my brother was there as well, mixing up solutions and pouring them together and getting all sorts of colored precipitates. It was pretty remarkable. I was about four years old, I think, at that time. Of course I didn’t know what I was doing, but it was something that I really enjoyed.

Then when I was about five, my father got a position at University of Illinois on the faculty. And the family went there. I went to the public schools through grade school and junior high school, and then I went to the University High School, which is a small university experimental high school. I think they tested us – all of their testing was done with us as guinea pigs. But in a class of, over a fifty-year period, of only about two or three thousand graduates they had three Nobel laureates, and many, many doctors and professors. So it was quite a—it’s still quite a productive school. So I got a very strong scientific background in high school, at least for that time. In fact I took chemistry in the summer after my—after seventh grade. Then I took the high school physics in the summer after the eighth grade, and then I went on to high school, finished in three years. Went on then to—I was very interested in all sorts of things. Of course, my brother and I had a basement chemistry lab, and we also did all sorts of things with electrical – you know, like radio, making radios, and high voltage Tesla coils, all sorts of spectacular stuff. And then with our chemistry set, we would—we had a big focus on explosives, of course, and in fact invented a couple of pretty nice ones. And we made our own fireworks.

Our fire—for Fourth of July we made our own fireworks as we got further along. And, so, you know my life all through that period was focused pretty much on sort of scientific stuff, very little social life, other than the high school. I had some close friends of course. And I was studying music, piano, at the time so I had some pretty good musical friends. In fact I always felt kind of inferior because they all had perfect pitch and they were composing and I couldn’t do any of that – but I stuck to my science. And I also, in high school I developed a strong interest in math. So when I went on to the University of Illinois for my first two years of college I majored in mathematics. And I took a biology course but I didn’t have any particular interest in that other than the genetics part, which had a little bit of a mathematical component to it. But the rest of it was kind of descriptive, and not too exciting. So I took a lot of—I took a lot of math courses, some chemistry, and physics, and symbolic logic, things like that. Then when my brother transferred to Berkeley to do graduate studies in physics I went with him, and so I did my junior and senior year at Berkeley, again continuing in mathematics.

After I completed two years of studying mathematics at University of Illinois in Urbana, I joined my brother in Berkeley. He had gone there for graduate studies in physics. So at Berkeley I continued in mathematics; I got my bachelor’s degree in mathematics. But I can recall quite vividly, I guess at the end of my junior year, that even though I had the highest grade average in mathematics of anybody in the school, and I got a little thing that said “highest honors in mathematics,” but there were others there that were obviously better. So I mean I was studying all the time, and they were thinking more creatively I think. I like to tell people now that I left mathematics because I hadn’t done a major proof by the time I was eighteen, but that wasn’t quite true. But even at that time I tried to be creative in math and it just wasn’t coming along. So, I accumulated—so I called my father and said look, I don’t know—I don’t want to go into chemistry or physics, and I’m not sure that I really want to continue to graduate work in mathematics. So he suggested that I go to medical school. Because his father had been a doctor, he wanted to go to medical school, he wanted a doctor in the family, and he said, “I’ll pay the tuition.” And, so, it was $600 a year at that point, which was not too bad.

So I applied to I think four schools all together, but I was not in the typical pre med curriculum; in fact I had to stay over in summer school to complete some pre med courses. So I applied to four schools: Johns Hopkins, University of Illinois, Stanford, and Chicago, I think. I was accepted everywhere except Stanford, where I was on then alternate, because my application went in late. But I had not taken the MCAT test, because I wasn’t even aware that it was required, you know, so they—two of the schools wanted me to go ahead and take the test in the summer before—they accepted me, but they said you know, for the records we have to have you at least have, take the test. But Hopkins said, “No, we don’t require it” – so I went to Hopkins, which was a good choice. So in 1952 I went to Johns Hopkins, and I guess I became quite interested in medicine. I enjoyed it actually. Much more social interaction than I had experienced in mathematics. I enjoyed that a lot. And I think—I was also—I had the opportunity to do some research during the four years I was there; nothing that amounted to anything of course

Hamilton Smith is a U.S. microbiologist born Aug. 23, 1931, New York, N.Y. Smith received an A.B. degree in mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley in 1952 and the M.D. degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1956. After six years of clinical work in medicine (1956-1962), he carried out research on Salmonella phage P22 lysogeny at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (1962-1967). In 1967, he joined the Microbiology Department at Johns Hopkins.

In 1968, he discovered the first TypeII restriction enzyme (HindII) and determined the sequence of its cleavage site. In, 1978 he was a co-recipient (with D. Nathans and W. Arber) of the Nobel in Medicine for this discovery.

He is currently the Scientific Director Synthetic Biology and Bioenergy Distinguished Professor at the J. Craig Venture Institute in Rockville, Maryland.