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Behind the picture: Fred Sanger’s schooldays

Today would have been the 97th birthday of Fred Sanger, double Nobel Prize winner and inventor of DNA sequencing. As her new online exhibition about Sanger’s life and work launches, Dr Lara Marks of the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King’s College London, looks back on his path to the development of DNA sequencing and its application in medicine.  

The boys and masters of Shaftesbury House, Bryanston School, 1934

(Image copyright: Mark Ordish)

 

This picture, taken in 1934, shows a 16-year-old Sanger almost slap-bang in the middle of a group of boys at Bryanston School, a private school for boys in Dorset. Reflecting his smallness in the photo, Sanger was nicknamed ‘Mouse’ at school, perhaps due to a combination of his size and relative shyness.

Behind Fred’s left shoulder is his brother Theo. It was Theo’s passion and explorations of nature in the family garden that helped awaken Sanger’s interest in science.

Another significant member of the party, in the middle of the front row, is Fred’s chemistry and house master Henry Geoffrey Ordish. Having studied chemistry at Cambridge University and pursued research at the Cavendish Laboratory, Ordish was a powerful influence on Sanger and his decision to pursue a scientific career.

School photo_with captionsWhen Sanger arrived in the world on 13 August 1918, both the structure and code of DNA remained unknown. By the time he died in 2013, however, knowledge about DNA and understanding about its blueprint for life and disease had been transformed. Much of this was down to Sanger’s work and the sequencing techniques that he developed first for deciphering the structure of proteins and then DNA.

Despite his importance and status as one of a small handful of scientists ever awarded the Nobel Prize twice, the life and work of Sanger and his legacy have received relatively little public attention. All too often his achievements are overshadowed by that of James Watson and Francis Crick’s work on DNA’s double-helix.

In part this can be attributed to Sanger’s quiet and modest nature – he described himself as “just a chap who messed about in his lab” and saw himself as merely one of “the backroom boys”. Yet, it was his methodical and novel laboratory work that laid the basis for DNA sequencing ― one of the most important tools in medicine today and the basis for the genomic revolution.

In today’s world when DNA sequencing is carried out by automated machines it is easy to forget how time-consuming and laborious the process was when Sanger first started his sequencing work.

In my exhibition I trace the first few steps Sanger took on the road to his development of DNA sequencing through to the revolution it has recently brought to the medical world.

Using photos and laboratory notebooks I’ve tried to give a glimpse into Sanger’s immense patience and the painstaking, repetitive steps he and his colleagues went through to perfect the sequencing technique.

One of most significant notes shown in the exhibition is one written by Sanger between 1973 and 1974 at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, recording what he called “a fairly ambitious experiment”. Little did he know that this experiment, labelled D93, would lay the basis for DNA sequencing which would radically transform the future of medicine. But perhaps if he had, he’d have been just as modest about it.

Lara Marks

The online exhibition was sponsored by the MRC.

*This article was edited on 14/08/2015 to correct how old Sanger would have been.

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