Frederick Sanger


Interview, December 2001

An interview with Dr. Frederick Sanger by Joanna Rose, science writer, 9 December 2001.

Dr. Sanger reflects on being awarded the Nobel Prize twice; his work on fundamental questions of life (3:08); how modern molecular biology become a commercial success (7:17); how Quakerism has influenced his life philosophy (9:35); and his interests after retirement (11:45).

Interview transcript

Dr Frederick Sanger, welcome to this Nobel interview. You are one of the very few persons that have been awarded Nobel Prize twice. So I suppose that maybe you know how to do it. Many people would like to get Nobel Prize but they don’t. Can you share your secret with us?

Frederick Sanger: Well, I don’t think there are any secrets. First thing, you know, people ask me this sometimes and I tell them the first thing is to get a prize. And that’s much more difficult to get the first prize than to get the second one. Because if you’ve already got a prize then you can get facilities for work and you can get collaborators and everything is much easier. And I think I was lucky in that respect that I got my first prize when I was rather young, about 40, and most people when they get a prize they get a good job, they become professors or directors of a large group. And I didn’t because I wouldn’t be any good at that.

So really you’ve got to be bad at something, but I was quite good at doing research and I could go on doing research for another 20 years and I didn’t have to apply for grants and that sort of thing. Nowadays there’s a lot of people that when they’re doing science they have to apply for grants, spend a lot of time doing paperwork which I never had to do after I had won the first prize. So I had 20 years when I could just do what I wanted. And I started on a rather difficult project and spent all my time at it and I was very lucky at that time, succeeded in certain parts of the work.

But you switched your fields after the first prize?

Frederick Sanger: It wasn’t such a serious switch. My first work was on proteins, you know, things we’re actually made of. And the problem was to do what we call sequencing, actually measure the structure of the proteins, and I worked on proteins. And after that I attacked a much more difficult problem which was the nucleic acids and particularly the DNA. And I eventually came up with a method for sequencing DNA and learning about its structure and that’s what I got the second prize for, together with Wally Gilbert who was also working on the same thing.

And Paul Burke got the prize, the same work. But you shared the prize.

Frederick Sanger: Well yes, I got the prize the same year.

So you were working really on fundamental questions about life and where life comes from.

Rather fundamental questions which were quite mysterious when I started …

Frederick Sanger: That’s correct, yes. Rather fundamental questions which were quite mysterious when I started. When I started there were no sequences known at all either in proteins or in nucleic acids. I started about 1940, quite a long time ago. And started working on the proteins and I obtained a sequence of the first protein insulin that was ever done. And that was sequencing. And then after 1958 when I got the first prize I decided to attack the nucleic acids, which was a real challenge. And we did get a method for doing the sequencing. And it was about 1980 I got that prize. And now of course that same method is being used to do the human genome which there’s been a lot of interest in. And that is of course the ultimate thing to understand, the sequence and all the details of the DNA in human beings, and we hope that’s going to do a lot of good for medicine.

The laboratory in Cambridge that was working on human genome project bears your name also, Frederick Sanger’s Laboratory. So how do you view this development in modern biology?

Frederick Sanger: It’s very exciting I think. I think there’s going to be a lot of use for medicine if we can really understand DNA and you know it is very complicated. There’s 3,000 million letters, as it were, in the DNA and you’ve got to read all that. And of course there are a lot of people working on that now to try and decipher the means and how it works. And I think that’s going to be of use to medicine. But we don’t know exactly what the applications will be. There’s a lot of talk of course in newspapers and wild talk about we’re going to cure all sorts of diseases and things.

Many promises.

Frederick Sanger: But you don’t want to believe that yet. But I think it’s sensible to understand that, you know, if you understand the thing better and if you know how it works then it will be of use to medicine.

It sounds feasible. What do you think, do you understand the concerns or fears that people feel when reading about modern biology?

Frederick Sanger: Not really, no. I mean there are certain things of course you’ve got to think about. But as regards to the human genome the only thing that I’ve heard about is that some people may have to pay more for their insurance policies. And I don’t think that’s a very serious thing. I mean that’s a question for society to decide whether or what things should be used for. But surely it’s much more significant that one should consider what might happen, what good things might happen, that people might be more healthy and more happy. That’s what science is about, to try and improve conditions for humanity on this earth. And I think we should think about that ultimately. And against that you can worry a bit about what insurance you’re going to have to pay. And I think that’s for the insurance industry and not a very serious thing is it?

Modern molecular biology, it was very successful, not only in research and in science but also commercially very successful field, and biotechnology has developed since then with big commercial pressures. What do you think about that?

Frederick Sanger: Of course it’s I think essential thing that happens. I mean that is a question for society to decide, isn’t it? I mean that’s the way capitalism works, isn’t it, that people want to make money. And if they’re working on some good, useful work then that should be very agreeable. But it would be nice to know everything that’s going on and there is a lot of work going on now using the human genome work, which is kept secret now until it’s used.

So it’s not really the ethos of science.

Frederick Sanger: Not of fundamental science but it is understandable I think that people want to make money and we live in a capitalist world, don’t we, and we have to face up to it and it seems to work fairly well.

I have heard that at least in 1980 before your prize and about this time that you were quite reluctant to take in patents on discoveries in science.

… I wouldn’t want to keep my work secret …

Frederick Sanger: I never had an opportunity really. I worked for the Medical Research Council and we were not allowed to take patents. And anyhow I wouldn’t have wanted to I don’t think because I wouldn’t want to keep my work secret. I was paid by the Medical Research Council and I had, I was paid for life really by the Medical Research Council. And that was my reward for the work I did. I don’t think it would be fair to expect to keep my work secret. And it was up to the English tax payer who supported me, gave me this opportunity. And I think that was fair enough.

I have another question. Einstein, people say that Einstein had a strong religious belief and you’re a Quaker. What is the place of religion within your scientific philosophy?

Frederick Sanger: Well, that’s rather difficult to say I think. I was brought up as a Quaker. My father was a Quaker and I think I was never actually a sort of Quaker, I was never a member of the Society of Friends. And when I got to university and stuff and started studying science I gradually lost interest really in religion and Quakerism. But it has influenced I think my philosophy in two ways really. The Quakers are pacifists. They will not take human life. And I still go along with that, and I believe that.

And the Quakers are also very keen on truth and they believe in fundamental truth is one of the virtues. And I was brought up with that philosophy, that I must not tell lies when I was a little boy. And I think this is very important for scientists, because a scientist is really studying truth and you’ve got to be very certain about what you say is truthful. And I think this is a philosophy which is worthwhile because a lot of people I think nowadays are quite happy to say something that’s wrong and it can get them into difficulty and it can get other people into difficulty. I actually have a sort of fixation about it rather, even when somebody asks me, you know they say to me how are you Fred? And I say oh I’m terrible. I should say I’m fine thanks. It’s a standard thing.

It’s a convention.

Frederick Sanger: If I’m not, I find it a little difficult to say that.

You have now left science and you have been retired in 20 years as you said before, but you have developed some other interests as gardening and as you call it ‘messing about in boats’. What do you do when you’re messing about?

Frederick Sanger: Well, I used to do a bit of sailing and messing about really. I had a boat, a sailing boat, and I had a motor boat. Now I have given up sailing, I don’t do any sailing, but I still have a motor boat and I go on the river and mess about, just being on the river and cruising away from the roads is very pleasant. But gardening is what I do mostly and just living it.

Are you a successful gardener?

… I’m actually much busier, I think, than I was when I was working …

Frederick Sanger: No, I find it’s … no I’m actually much busier, I think, than I was when I was working because I’ve got time to do all sorts of things. I was going to do lots of different things like painting and building. And I used to do a lot of carpentry at one time, used to do a lot of carpentry. I find that there’s too many things to do. And I’ve got rather a large garden and that takes most of my time now.

So what is your biggest success in the garden?

Frederick Sanger: Biggest success? I don’t know really. I think just enjoying myself. And it’s nice for my family.

Thank you for taking your time. Thank you very much.

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