Sydney Brenner interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 23rd August 2007

0:09:07 Born in Germiston near Johannesburg 13th January 1927; father emigrated from Lithuania to South Africa where he had a brother in about 1911; mother came from Latvia and she emigrated in 1922 and had lived through the revolution; father repaired shoes and we lived initially in rooms at the back of his shop; mother has ambitions for her children; father was illiterate but had a gift for languages; mother encouraged me to read which I learnt to do from newspapers; went to a kindergarten run by a customer of my father's who had found me there reading a newspaper on the floor; did first three years of primary school in one year; went directly into standard 2 at the government primary school aged six; meant I was always about two years younger than the rest of the class which was not helpful

5:12:10 After High School matriculated when under fifteen; had won a scholarship to

university to study medicine; had a lab of my own in a garage; can't remember being influenced by any teacher at the school and got most of my education in the public library; as a child interested in nature and took flies apart and wondered how you could put them back together again; went to University of Witwatersrand aged fifteen; commuted every day, by bicycle, train, then walking; tough regime with lectures or laboratory sessions every day including Saturday morning from 8am; enjoyed it as there did meet interesting people; a man in the botany department working on chromatography let me work in his lab; we did four subject - botany, zoology, chemistry and physics; after the first year moved to the medical school where I did anatomy and physiology; discovered that I couldn't qualify as a doctor as I would be under twenty-one so I was able to take a year out to do a Bachelor of Science degree in anatomy and physiology; took out three years and did a B.Sc., B.Sc. Hons. then Master of Science by which time I was already doing scientific research; realized I was not a good medical student but did complete another four years to qualify for the sake of a safe job; finished at the end of 1950 and I did go abroad in 1952; had been at Witwatersrand for almost nine years; had become a lecturer while still a medical student teaching physiology; became an expert on calorie intake

13:58:22 At Witwatersrand a most important influence was Raymond Dart the Professor of Anatomy but more so was a man called Joseph Gillman who was a lecturer in histology and later Professor of Physiology; working in the laboratory was a tremendous experience; nothing there so had to make amino acid for an experiment, for example; also built an ultracentrifuge and used it; parents supportive throughout although mother would have been much happier to see me as a specialist doctor; was interested in molecular biology which had not yet been invented; Waddington came out to South Africa for a time and encouraged me to apply to Cambridge which I did; they never replied to my letter; I won a rare scholarship linked to the 1851 exhibition in 1950; Principal recommended me to go to work with Cyril Hinshelwood, Professor of Physical Chemistry at Oxford; accepted to do a DPhil in physical chemistry and went in 1952

19:06:04 In South Africa made films with a group and had made one on Dylan Thomas; had to imagine what England was like from reading but it was a shock when I came here; arrived during the time of food rationing and for two years just dreamt of food; married after a term in Oxford; May was in London doing a PhD; settled in Oxford and both finished in two years; I won a travelling scholarship from the Carnegie Foundation to go to America for four months; had a very good friend in Oxford called Jack Dunitz; had come to Oxford with the idea that I could determine the structure of DNA; heard about Crick and Watson and went to Cambridge to see them in April 1953 with Jack and Leslie Orgel; they had already discovered the structure of DNA which we saw and the implications were just blindingly clear; immediately saw the problems or coding and copying and the work that needed to be done

25:00:21 On that day Francis wouldn't stop talking but Jim gave me the impression of an irritated bird; they had made a breakthrough but no notice was taken of it for quite a time except for a tiny band of people who saw that this had reformulated major questions in biology; at Oxford there was a club called the Alembic Club of chemists and Fred Sanger came to talk in 1953 as he had just assembled insulin; Robert Robinson said it was remarkable because Sanger had proved that proteins actually had a chemical structure; Sanger was an unique scientist as he saw that determining how the sequence was arranged is important; he devised simple techniques to achieve this; he liked to work in the lab and when he retired he put down his pipette and said "That's it" and walked out

33:47:19 John Griffith's role in the discovery of DNA; after D.Phil went to America for four months but in the meantime started to discuss with Francis about coming back to join him in the MRC unit; had to go back to South Africa to fulfil obligations attached to my scholarship but two years later, at the end of 1956, I came to Cambridge; had a three year job at 1100 a year and three children; beginning of an incredibly exciting time in science; Francis read all the time and when he left Cambridge the entire room was full of books on the brain; value of conversation with Crick resulting in productive thoughts; I would try them out in the lab to see if they were right; value of guessing; correct theories and true theories; science similar to a medieval guild with a very good journeymen and apprentices; blinding flashes of illumination; work with Francois Jacob