Sydney Brenner on Milislav Demerec, Director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
  Sydney Brenner     Biography    
Recorded: 10 Jun 2002

Well, Demerec—when Demerec had retained his Yugoslav accent. And completely—he also didn’t use articles, so that I could tell—he used to say, you know, “Put medium in test tube.”

But what I thought of was he made himself famous for—he made himself famous for his work in Drosophila, he was a Drosophila geneticist. And I thought it was fantastic that he had decided to switch completely and pick up the transduction work of Norton Zinder and started to do genetics on Salmonella typhimurium. And so, but he actually was very interesting in the sense that—he was very interesting in the sense that he was very careful about expenditure in the lab. For example, I can remember he was—he liked to switch off the Bunsen burner. He would come in and his hand would be automatic.

And I remember one afternoon he came in to talk to me and I decided I would position myself between him and the Bunsen burner. And so his hand was going around me, you know, trying to reach it but he failed that time! I think that that’s basically how I remember him from that summer of ‘54.

A colleague of mine was working at Cold Spring Harbor and that’s how I knew him—called Phil Hartman—who ultimately married Dr. Demerec’s daughter. There were also many people that remained friends for life that worked with him like Yura, a Japanese scientist who I still see when I go to Japan.

So that was my impression and of course there’s a wonderful story about Demerec that Al Hershey and I invented.

And the story is—Demerec discovered that manganese makes mutations. So the story goes that somebody in the audience—he didn’t know too much chemistry. Somebody in the audience asks him, “What is the effect of pH?” And so Demerec replies, “We tried adding pH. We also left it out and we got the same effects.” So it was apocryphal, but could be true! And that was how I remember Demerec.

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.