Tribute to Professor Sir John Sulston

by | Mar 29, 2018 | News | 0 comments

Like many others around the world, we were deeply saddened to hear of the death of one of our interviewees in the ‘Balancing Beliefs’ project, Professor Sir John Sulston.  Remarkably, he made game-changing contributions to the field of Science, and after winning a Nobel Prize for his work on the DNA of the nematode, he went on to lead the British branch of an international project to sequence the human genome. Thanks to his commendable work, our collective knowledge of the building-blocks of life has been transformed, and the positive domino affects in the sphere of medicine have been immense.  The Human Genome Project has indeed enabled dramatic advances in the treatment of cancer and other diseases, and it has helped scientists and doctors to develop targeted therapies with fewer side effects.

It is moving to think that as a result of the research which Sir John and his colleagues carried out, people who would otherwise have died a long while ago can wake up this morning to play with their children, go to work, get wet in the March drizzle, and generally get on with life wherever they happen to be.  That must be acknowledged as an indescribably precious, but also very apt legacy, for a man who dedicated himself to both biological science and the collective welfare of humankind.

Sir John should also be remembered for his determination that the human genome should be sequenced in publically funded universities, and therefore freely available to future researchers.  In his view, having data shackled by the intellectual property rights of business interests was far too high a price to pay for commercial support.  This courageous stance in defence of social justice and the common good was typical of his, and the principles which he maintained throughout his life and career.  We can attest from personal experience that he was extremely kind and unassuming, whilst his help was genuine, generous and completely ungrudging.  Furthermore, in a society where it is all too common to witness a total disconnect between principles held in the abstract, on the one hand, and practical daily choices, on the other, it was refreshing to encounter someone who demonstrated a synergy between both of them.  In other words, Sir John not only talked the talk, but walked the walk as well.  He believed that human beings are a social species, and must be collaborative and mutually caring in order to flourish. He lived this out on every level, including big decisions and small, from taking a principled stand about research funding, to giving us his time to help with a legal project on religion and belief.

The closing remarks in his interview made a deep impression upon both of us.  Human beings are at present a very young species (in context, trilobites endured for 281 MILLION years, homo sapiens have been around for about 200,000), and if we are to have any hope of surviving, we need to start working together to take responsibility for the planet we inhabit.  Otherwise, our current squabbles about religion, humanism, culture and politics will all be pretty irrelevant.  We run the risk of signing our own death-warrants by generating pollution and using resources irresponsibly, as well as destroying countless other innocent and beautiful living creatures (many of them with enough cognitive and emotional capacity to suffer) in the process.  It is a salutary thought, but one which we cannot afford to ignore.  Crucially, if we don’t put our differences aside and find ways to live in harmony and collaboration one with another, we won’t be living at all.

Related articles

Sir John Sulston: Obituary The Guardian (11/3/18)

Sir John Sulston human genome pioneer dies BBC News (9/3/18)

Balancing Beliefs: Sir John Sulston Interview

John Sulston: Founding Director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute

Manchester University: Obituary Professor Sir John Sulston

An Overview of the Human Genome Project


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