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Oration by University of Leicester Orator Professor Stewart Petersen on the occasion of Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys being awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science by the University of Leicester, July 2004
Sir Alec Jeffreys is one of the most distinguished Geneticists of this age.
A mere glance at his Curriculum Vitae is enough to shatter the ego of
most fellow scientists. He is
credited with a range of major discoveries, became a Fellow of the Royal
Society in his 30s, and was knighted in his 40s, yet still he remains an
essentially modest man wedded to his laboratory and the continuing pursuit of
there were ever a natural born scientist, Alec is one.
He grew up in modest circumstances in Oxford & Luton, and inspired
by his father, an inveterate inventor, became fascinated by science at a
tender age. The gift of a
potentially lethal Chemistry set at the age of eight set him off on a life of
natural curiosity drove him rapidly to experiments that would make a Health
& Safety Inspector’s hair curl. Having
alarmed the local population by carrying home on the bus a leaking bottle of
fuming nitric acid he received another gift, of a microscope this time, which
kindled an interest in the safer territory of Biology.
The combination of Biology & Chemistry has driven his scientific
career ever since.
the time he reached his local Grammar School Alec was already an accomplished
scientist. Teachers in other subjects were not necessarily so impressed.
Having exasperated his Latin Master with the schools worst ever
performance in a mock exam, however, Alec decided to demonstrate the breadth
of his brilliance, applied himself, and went on to win the school prize in
that subject as well.
returned to Science A levels in Britain’s first ever sixth form college and
in recognition of his skill was given free reign in the school laboratories
– as near to heaven as he could achieve at that stage in his life.
Progress to Oxford to read Biochemistry was guaranteed.
Initially put off by some of the drier aspects he rapidly discovered
Genetics. Attracted by the logic
of the subject he saw immediately the potential of the developing field of
Molecular Biology and decided to opt for a PhD on Mitochondrial Genetics in
the Oxford ’Genetics Laboratory’.
supervisor, a junior lecturer at the time, realised that the lightest touch
was required, and left Alec to his own devices, with just the occasional
application of the brakes to keep him on course.
A wise decision indeed as the first papers stormed into the scientific
literature within a matter of months.
chance meeting in a lunch queue alerted Alec to the techniques of DNA analysis
that have formed the basis of his subsequent career.
He left Oxford on a prestigious European Molecular Biology Fellowship
to work in Holland, and began the study of globin genes.
Within a very short time major discoveries followed, and were reported
in a series of publications in the most prestigious journals.
1977 he moved to the University of Leicester, where he has remained.
He found himself in a supportive and facilitative environment, where he
was trusted to follow his instincts and get on with it. Within a short time he was appointed to the Lister Fellowship
scheme, which allowed him to concentrate solely on research by providing cover
for his teaching and other responsibilities.
His time at the laboratory bench proved exceptionally fruitful.
chance observation stimulated him to studies which revealed hypervariable
regions of DNA – the basis of the genetic fingerprinting techniques for
which he is now so famous. In
reality this discovery, though of enormous impact, is only one of Alec’s
achievements, others, such as the discovery of copy genes, split genes and
pseudogenes are of comparable or greater scientific importance.
marked as one of the greats, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at
the exceptionally early age of 36, and within a short time appointed a Royal
Society Wolfson Research Professor, which guaranteed for life his freedom at
the laboratory bench, the place he is most happy.
has always been content to lead a small focussed research group so that he
stays in touch with the realities of the science rather than being drawn too
far into the politics of the scientific community.
It has been for others to build a huge industry out of his discoveries,
which have revolutionised the detection of crime and so many other aspects of
is driven to communicate his passion for science to the public.
He undertakes an ardous programme of lectures to a huge variety of
groups, enjoying in particular lecturing to groups of school children that he
aims to inspire to become the scientists of the future.
His contributions have been recognised with a Knighthood in 1994, and a
raft of other Honours, sufficient to fill a large display. Earlier this year he received the Louis Jeantet prize, one of
the most prestigious scientific awards there is.
Sir Alec Jeffreys is a man with genes in his science and science in his genes.
As close to the ideal of a pure scientist that it is possible to get,
he has shown convincingly that the pursuit of science for its own sake can
have incalculable benefits for mankind as a whole.
Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and the Council, I present to you Alec John Jeffreys that you may confer upon him the honorary Degree of Doctor of Science.
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