DNA fingerprinting

Oration by University of Leicester Orator Professor Stewart Petersen

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

Professor 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 thirties, and was knighted in his forties, yet still he remains an essentially modest man wedded to his laboratory and the continuing pursuit of scientific excellence.

If there were ever a natural born scientist, Alec is one. He grew up in modest circumstances in Oxford and 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 experimental science.

His natural curiosity drove him rapidly to experiments that would make a Health and 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 and chemistry has driven his scientific career ever since.

By 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 school's 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.

He 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'. 

His 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.

A 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.

In 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.

A 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.

Already 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.

Alec 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 our lives.

Alec is driven to communicate his passion for science to the public. He undertakes an arduous programme of lectures to a huge variety of groups, enjoying in particular lecturing to groups of school children whom 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.

Professor 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 as 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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