DNA fingerprinting

Response by Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys to Honorary Degree Oration, July 2004

Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Lord Mayor, graduands, ladies and gentlemen. You have all done me an enormous honour today, and it is with huge pleasure that I accept this honorary doctorate, not just for myself but also for all my friends and colleagues at Leicester who, over the years, have contributed so much to our work in genetics. Time does not permit me to go through the entire list but I will just pick out three.

The first is Bob Pritchard, a truly brilliant geneticist, who founded the Department of Genetics here at Leicester and created a great department and a wonderful atmosphere of total academic freedom that proved essential in our development of our work on DNA fingerprinting.

I would also like to thank my technician at the time, Vicky Wilson, who saved DNA fingerprinting by rescuing a key ingredient of the technology that I had thrown into the bin in a fit of pique. She said, "No Alec, that's not a bright idea", and without realising it, rescued forensic DNA.

I would also like to say a huge thank you to my wife, Sue, who is here today. Sue has been a tremendous support over the years to me, and she has played a very important role in DNA fingerprinting. It was Sue who spotted the first big application of DNA fingerprinting, reuniting families who have been disrupted by immigration disputes - an area which, in fact, proved to be the first mass application of DNA fingerprinting.

I take a great deal of pride in our work, and especially in the attention and connection that it has with Leicester. I have been to the States on many occasions, and I take enormous pleasure in telling heaven knows how many Americans I do not live in the city that is called Lei-ces-ter. The only problem I've ever hit in the States was on one occasion when I was being interviewed live on primetime TV, and they threw a very interesting question at me: "If genetic fingerprinting is so great why wasn't it invented in America?" I am still racking my brains to find a suitably polite answer to that, and have yet to come up with one.

I have to say I am amazed at how the DNA technology, which is now 20 years old, has reached out round the entire world, and has touched the lives of millions of people directly. Here in the UK alone, our police have a national database of criminals and suspects, which now holds a total of 2.5 million people. That's about one person in 25 of the population, which by the law of averages means there should be a considerable number of people on the database present in this hall, but I will save you embarrassment and unless you want to, do not show your hands.

As you have heard, our work has actually received far more than its fair share of recognition, but I have to say that this honorary doctorate from my own University is extremely special indeed. I really cannot tell you how important it is to me.

I would also like to thank the orator for splendidly summarising the work that we have done over the years and I must say that it is much more comprehensible than the speech at the ceremony during which I was awarded an honorary degree from Oxford, where the oration was entirely in Latin. This oration finished with a comment that my work has, and I quote, "followed the injunction of Apollo at Delphi by working on the question of what it is to be human, and by giving the great part of the answer." I was completely gob-smacked by this remark as I thought I was a biologist, but there you go. So, thank you to the orator.

I would like to finish by congratulating all you graduands and graduates. You are the heroes of today, not me. I should not be here: you are the important people, and I am sure that you, like me, are all enormously proud not only to be part of this great university, but to have played an important part in the life of this wonderful university.

I thank you all very much.

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