“I think knowledge can be dangerous to research. A modicum of ignorance is absolutely essential. Because otherwise you don’t try anything new.”– from Sydney Brenner’s My Life in Science, 2001
— SYDNEY BRENNER —
1927 - 2019
Sydney Brenner, British biologist/geneticist and winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, was born in Germiston, South Africa in 1927. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe; his father from Lithuania, and his mother from Latvia. Sydney's father was a cobbler (a vocation he would have throughout his entire life) and like many struggling families, the Brenner's lived in two rooms in the back of the shoe repair shop.
Young Sydney was taught how to read by the wife of a tailor who lived nearby, for his father could neither read nor write. When it was discovered that he was reading fluently at the age of four, he was sent to a kindergarten run by a Presbyterian church --- the only school his parents could afford to send him to. He quickly acquired a love of reading and learning. He discovered the world of books at the Carnegie built public library in Germiston, and read voraciously. He soon developed an interest in chemistry and biochemistry, and conducted basic experiments he found in various books, such as The Young Scientist, by Sherwood Taylor. He quickly mastered his school subjects and graduated from Germiston High School at the age of 15.
With the aid of a small stipend from the Town Council from Germiston, Brenner was able to attend the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. For two years he studied the basic science courses in preparation for Medical School. Realizing that he was too young to qualify for the practice of medicine, Sydney took additional courses in the Anatomy Department. During this period, when he was able to observe advanced researchers like Alfred Oettle, Joel Mandelstam and Harold Daitz, his interests in laboratory research flourished.
Brenner, by his own admission, was not a good medical student but he did manage to scrape by and receive the degrees of MB BCh in 1951. In July of that same year he announced that he would not pursue the practice of medicine. Instead, after being awarded a scholarship by the Commission for the Royal Exhibition of 1851, and on the advice of Sir Cyril Hinshelwood, Brenner was accepted at Oxford University where he was intent on pursuing a Ph.D. in the Physical Chemistry Laboratory.
In December of 1952 Brenner married in London. His wife, May, was able to move with him to Oxford where she pursued a Ph.D. in Psychology in London.
In April 1953 Jack Dunitz informed Brenner of the developments with the structure of DNA at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge. It was that same month that Brenner, along with Dunitz and others, traveled to Cambridge to see the model first hand. It was there that Brenner met both Francis Crick and James D. Watson and first saw the famous double helix.
In November of 1953 Brenner wrote Dr. Milislav Demerec, then director of the Carnegie Institution Laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor, for approval to visit the Laboratory. Demerec responded, "You will be welcome to stay here as long as is convenient for you." On 24 November 1953 Brenner applied for a Carnegie Corporation grant for travel and study in the United States. His stated intentions were to meet researchers in the fields of chemical microbiology, microbial genetics and virology, study the organization of laboratories and teaching methods, and to obtain strains of viruses and bacteria which were not available in South Africa, all of which he accomplished.
In July of 1954 Brenner arrived in the United States. He spent his first 2 1/2 months at the Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor attending courses on bacteriophage and bacterial genetics while continuing experiments with the biosynthesis of tryptophan. There he met many of the people who played important roles in the development of the study of molecular biology including Seymour Benzer, Salvador Luria and Max Delbruck.
Brenner made visits to several laboratories while in the United States, including extended visits to Cal Tech and the Kerckhoff Biological Laboratory, and several weeks in the Virus Laboratory at the University of California. In California he carried out research in the growth of bacteriophages in bacterial cells from which the cell walls had been removed.
— GALLERY —
MEMORIES OF SYDNEY BRENNER
—CONVERSATIONS WITH SYDNEY—
—MEMORIES & CONDOLENCES—
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