Dan Brown interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 10th January 2008

With additional notes by Dan Brown within brackets

0:09:07 Born at Giffnock near Glasgow in 1923; father was a restaurateur in Glasgow, taking on his father's business when his elder brother was killed in the First World War; Daniel Brown Ltd. dated from the mid-nineteenth century but neither my brother nor myself ever seriously thought of going into the business; my father had been an engineer on the Clyde during the First World War; he was an intelligent man and interested in my progress at school, particularly maths; mother had been a teacher for a short time and helped with English; did not have a large library of books but father did give me 'The World of Science' by Sherwood Taylor; my interest in chemistry evident when I went to Glasgow Academy; the chemistry teacher suggested that I might sit for a scholarship to Cambridge; that implied staying at school for an extra two years and learning some Latin; rumours of war ended this idea and I went to Glasgow University

6:44:05 Never had any particular hobbies while at school though I have become interested in music since; started at Glasgow University at seventeen; war started but the system at that time was that if you were doing well you could stay and were not called up; for some reason I had not joined the O.T.C. at Glasgow Academy though I don't remember being in any sense a pacifist although I think my father was in a non-active sense; father had no religious affiliations though I sometimes went to church with my mother; I retain from that time a liking for a good philosophical sermon; however I have always been an atheist but one has a liking for some of the ritual and music

12:19:19 Don't remember any really inspiring teachers at university but they were good; one lived one's life in the Lab and lecturers had to pass through it which allowed one to talk to them; there was no supervision beyond that; became clear to me when I arrived in Cambridge that the supervision system, at least in the sciences, did not expect much reading; I did join what is now the Royal Chemical Society in 1942 and, as a student, learned much chemistry from the Journal; at that time papers were comprehensible to students at our level which is no longer the case; head of the department, J.W. Cook, was a good chemist and he had been associated with the Chester Beatty Research Institute in London and had been involved in the chemistry of carcinogens from coal tar and soot from which were extracted several pure crystalline compounds which when rubbed on the back of a mouse created a tumour; on his suggestion I later became a research student there; the Director was E.L. Kennaway, a strong rationalist, with whom I got on well; I was involved then with the man who, with Cook, had done the important thing that started cancer chemotherapy, an understanding of carcinogenesis by finding a pure organic compound in nature; this had been known for two centuries and discussed by Percival Pott, called chimney sweep's cancer; I learnt quite a lot there although I thought the Ph.D. thesis that I wrote was dreadful; I read it again a few weeks ago and realized that I had become aware among other things, that the genetic material which was the thing that was clearly going wrong in carcinogenesis was probably DNA and not proteins, at least not directly; that was a view that was coming through just at that time

20:59:16 While in Glasgow, my friends and I were reading Sartre, MauriacGide and Duhamel's 'The Pasquier Chronicles', all in translation; felt French writing had an intellectual content which I did not find in English works of the time; did enjoy Shakespeare's sonnets and Keats, Shelley, Coleridge and Tennyson; read C.P. Snow but realized that his characters were like cardboard figures with no depth; only book of his that I felt for later was 'The Search' which was  about his own failure as a physical chemist although disguised as a crystallographer who was obviously Max Perutz, and another character (Leo Constantine) who was clearly J.D. Bernal; got a feeling for Cambridge at that time through this book;

[I must add here, that all my time in Cambridge I have been increasingly appreciative of music. More importantly, I have read and collected poetry, specifically the products of the period of the Scottish Literary Renaissance from around 1920-1960. Just as important to me was my continuing interest in Western art and its history, rather specifically, that of the twentieth century. It almost became a practical “hobby”.]

26:33:10 Stayed at the Chester Beatty for a further year and read a lot; got interested in certain aspects of nucleic acid chemistry; the subject was in confusion; the head of Chester Beatty said I should go to Cambridge for a while and learn some nucleic acid chemistry with Alexander Todd; Todd had made a meteoric rise and had worked at Oxford with Sir Robert Robinson and had spent a year or two in Edinburgh with a man called George Barger, whom I found had been a Fellow of King's; he was learning to work on things which were very difficult as only present in minute amounts in living tissues, in fact the vitamins and coenzymes that derived from them; Todd came to Cambridge in 1944 and I came in 1948 and started working with Todd and Basil Lythgoe, a teaching fellow in King's; I joined Christ’s College as a graduate student intending to do a better thesis; I came to Cambridge never having seen it and having no concept of the place; I arrived at Christ’s with my friend Hugh Forrest who had come from Glasgow [now in Austin, Texas] and maybe he adapted faster as he played rugger; I found it a terrible institution akin to a finishing school for public school students; however, I had joined an exciting Lab which was going strongly with people coming from all over the world; I turned up at and interesting time; nucleic acids were not discussed much because of concentration on coenzyme synthesis (eg. RTP) and phosphorylation, the thing that Todd had started which got him the Nobel Prize; some of the structures as parts of the coenzymes were the same as those present in RNA although my reading of the literature showed that RNA structural understanding overall was quite chaotic; how the bits [the nucleoside phosphates or nucleotides] were joined together to make any reasonably large structure was just not understood; it was not understood for one reason; RNA was at least thought to be a chain and as with DNA it kept getting bigger as methods were developed to measure its size; and RNA was much less stable and more or less degraded, and the results that other people were getting were not telling them very much; when you have a chain you expect to be able to find the linkage points between one nucleoside phosphate and the next; the curious thing was that for fifteen years everyone believed, erroneously, there was just one position when you broke RNA down – the 3’- phosphate [there are four nucleosides in RNA with positions 2’-, 3’- and 5’- which can carry a phosphate group]; amazingly Waldo Cohn found that the methods used to separate metals in the atomic energy field could be used to separate the nucleotides from RNA hydrolysates; found that you got two kinds of phosphates for each of the four different kinds of nucleosides; sent Todd a pair of them and as I was at that moment the only one in the Lab he asked me to investigate;

[it should have been a simple project – the 5’- compounds were known, the 2’- ones had been synthesised in the lab but it took me a year to show that the latter were not what they were claimed to be; however, Waldo’s were the 2’- and 3’- compounds, but which was which, and what did they say about RNA structure; as it transpired in synthesising them I obtained their benzyl esters [nucleoside – phosphate – benzyl] and suddenly realized that they represented simple models of the so-called internucletide linkage in RNA; they behaved exactly like RNA on hydrolysis; put shortly, it showed that a simple model compound and an understanding of the chemical mechanism of its hydrolysis gave an understanding of the real RNA structure; in fact Roy Markham and John Smith working in a nearby lab, (the Molteno Institute), on viral RNA enzymology, and our results fitted exactly; RNA then ended up as a 3’- to 5’- linked polymer]

1950-1956 was a great period and for that reason; I was supposed to be going back to the Chester Beatty but Todd offered me a job as an ADR, Assistant Director of Research, which meant I could carry on working without teaching or demonstrating and I thus got a huge amount of work done; it had the unfortunate effect that I didn't learn to teach at the lower level and I don't enjoy lecturing

45:46:09 When Todd gave me the job Lythgoe left to go to Leeds and I stepped in to become college lecturer in chemistry at King's; this was in 1953; most of my life at the time was spent in the Lab but I did supervise and I quite enjoyed that; I have had some thirty Ph.D. students over the years; I had by that time generally got the RNA structure right and how it hydrolyses and therefore how enzymes hydrolyse; also the general chemical structure of DNA which is basis of the double helical structure described by Crick and Watson; as soon as I had finished working that bit of RNA chemistry the things that other people in the field were then beginning to do were biochemistry and I didn't want to do this; I looked around for another subject which I called a super-RNA problem which was the phosphoinositides and for a number of years I worked on that but also worked on the hydrolysis of phosphate esters and we derived a lot of interesting chemistry; the theory of organic chemistry up to the time I was learning it at university was almost all carbon chemistry; suddenly people started looking at esters, carbonyl compounds; then when Todd started on the phosphorus chemistry, that was almost another kind of chemistry; I, together with several fine graduate and post-doctoral people, one of whom was Neil Hamer who is now in Trinity, but was then a Research Fellow of King’s, discovered quite a lot of interesting things involved with phosphate ester chemistry and phosphorylation methodology; this took me through to my next period

51:35:12 Having got a University job and become a teaching Fellow, Margaret and I decided we would be able to marry; I got to know the Fellows of King's well - Beves, George Salt, Stockdale, Shire, Nicky Kaldor, Lord Kahn; got associated with Kenneth Harrison, a biochemist who did little biochemistry

[However, Harrison and I, with Noel Annan, brought Sydney Brenner to the College. Of course, my colleague Hal Dixon, and my closest friend, Gabriel Horn, were among that early group. I should add that when I became Vice-Provost of King’s in 1974, I got to know, and appreciate, all the Fellows, and indeed their wives. My interaction with Edmund Leach was important to me and I enjoyed the position very much.]

gather that if given a choice of college, students would come here though why they might feel the preference I don't know; there is no question that this college is in a real sense different from most others; that derives way back from the period when Shepherd was a young man and Rupert Brooke was here; there was a freedom which was not so in a place like Christ’s when I came to Cambridge; women were admitted early and with care not to offend the women's Colleges; however I think that I did better by doing my initial studies in Glasgow rather than here; we taught each other and we read in our subject whereas in Cambridge the relationship between the University and the Colleges were orthogonal to each other and led to a situation where you finished work at lunchtime and shot over to the College [or the ‘Eagle’] to eat and shot back again; meanwhile your other colleagues in the Lab did exactly the same; the students that you taught came to supervisions here but you didn't teach people in other Colleges; the College operation in the teaching sense was distinct and the interaction of the students in ones subject was cut apart

[This is too great a simplification, now.]

58:04:14 As far as my work was concerned one very important situation occurred with the appearance in about 1959 of Sydney Brenner; my chemistry had kept moving me away from the centre of chemistry in the Department towards the kind of things that Sidney involved himself in; I got interested in chemistry associated with genetics; that built up and I went back to nucleic acids again and some of my students went and worked in the MRC Molecular Biology Lab and slowly I moved over there so that when I came to have a sabbatical and then retire [early] I went and worked there permanently; I therefore have had two careers, one in chemistry and one in molecular biology although few of the molecular biologists would call me one; that worked very well until a year ago and now I find I can almost drop all that and become more domesticated; of the people that worked with me I would like to mention Srinivasan Varadarajan whose father was a lawyer in Bangalore and a follower of Gandhi’s peaceful resistance movement; there were quite a few of similar background in Cambridge at that time, an important generation now disappearing; I have been to India several times; Rajan did incredibly well, a huge amount of work, and took the view that if India was to become industrialized then it had to pull itself up by its own boot-straps; Britain had known since the end of the First World War that it would leave India; it took it too long and was still holding it back; Rajan did that with the petro-chemical engineering business

[Also a variety of biologically-based activities, not to mention the presidencies of the two National Academies of Science. His heroic actions in the Bhopal affair is another chapter in itself. A major justification for Cambridge University, and perhaps the Cambridge Colleges, is to bring such people of ability from other countries into serious contact with each other.]