Sydney Brenner on Women in Science: Admitting Women to Cambridge University
  Sydney Brenner     Biography    
Recorded: 10 Jun 2002

Well, I think, [as I’m] getting older, scientists in biology are now women, basically. It’s more than fifty percent. I think graduate students. And, you see—I think it’s—I think the social conditions, I think women are going to science have to make some kind of sacrifice in a way about family sacrifices. I think in these days there’s also much more sharing. I think many, many wives now are professionals, maybe not in science, but in other fields. And I think the whole idea that a woman’s place is in the home, and a man’s place is out there—that I think is disappearing.

I think you see that one of the things—I mean I—it was very interesting because in my college in Cambridge we decided we would admit women. Now my college had a statute which read, “No woman may be a member of this college.” Full stop.

That so in 19’—very early—In 1963, we were amending the statutes of our college. It’s very complicated business, you see. Because you have to go to Parliament and so on because—and so we said, “Look. Let’s change this.” We changed this to an ordinance, an ordinance—you see a statute needs two-thirds and it needs to be approved by the Privy Council, an ordinance just needs simple majority. So we changed it to an ordinance. Of course, when we came all the people said, “Ah, this is the thin edge of the wedge.” But the argument we made is: why should we tie the hands of our successors? Who knows in two hundred years the college may wish to admit women and we will place for our successors an unnecessary burden of this terrible business takes almost a year to do. So let’s do it.

Look it still says here, “No women may be a member of this college.” So we got it in! So when we came to amend it—now of course it was quite interesting because, you know, other colleges had done it and failed because the fellows voted against it. And there was a question of doing it there, so. But what had interested me eventually were the arguments produced against—they were hilarious.

For example, someone said, “Women are too clever and they would make the men feel, you know, they would embarrass the men. They’re too studious, you see. So we don’t want to embarrass the men, so we won’t have women.” I’m just giving you the kind of arguments.

Eventually we _____. They had one strong thing. They made the men stop talking nonsense because they wouldn’t [hear] it, and they also cleaned them up in the sense that everybody looked in that time and the period everybody dressed as though they had found their clothes in the garbage can. So now, you know, everybody had to wash and so on. So it was very positive!

Now I think in science—I mean to me, I don’t distinguish. You see, it seems to me—the test should be not whether you’re a woman, black, white, green, yellow, but I mean what you do. And I have to say that in the C. elegans summer my earliest, best post docs were women. I mean, Bob was one; he wasn’t a woman, of course. But I mean Cynthia Kenyon, Judith Kimble, Barbara Meyer—that generation was the first to get out there, you know, they were the first to come in the new period. So I think women—there’s no special role for them in science. I think they have a role. I think they may have to give up.

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.