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35 years since we changed the world

L-R: Professor Turi King, Tony Garner, Lin Garner, David Gyimah, Barbara Ashworth, David Baker, Chief Constable Simon Cole, Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, Professor Nishan Canagarajah, Rob Eaton, Lynda Eaton, Mick Tucker, Kath Eastwood, Sue Jeffreys, Jenny Foxon

The discovery of DNA genetic fingerprinting at the University of Leicester was a world-changing event and a Eureka moment for the scientist Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys. It was one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century.

The discovery had a global impact in transforming the criminal justice system, solving thousands of crimes and resolving disputes about genetic identity as well as going on to have applications in fields such as medicine, immigration, biodiversity studies, conservation, and agriculture.

The story of DNA is woven into the history of Leicestershire. It happened in a lab at the University of Leicester, Leicestershire Police were the first force in the world to use DNA fingerprinting to solve two Leicestershire murders. More recently, a form of DNA fingerprinting was used by Professor Turi King in the King Richard III case.

To mark 35 years since the publication of Sir Alec Jeffreys’ discovery, in the journal Nature, Professor King organised and led an event to acknowledge the anniversary. Professor King persuaded Alec to come out of retirement and she also traced the individuals involved in the earliest applications of the technology. The event brought all these people together for the first time and offered an opportunity to showcase Alec’s work and highlight the most important research story of our first century.

The event saw contributions from Sir Alec Jeffreys, Leicestershire Police Chief Constable Simon Cole, City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby and Vice-Chancellor Nishan Canagarajah. The Vice-Chancellor said: “This event is a moment in history. It brings together, for the first time, not only those involved in the discovery of DNA fingerprinting, but also those involved in its very first applications. The Eureka moment for one scientist was to become a global phenomenon and one that is woven in the history of Leicester and Leicestershire.”

Professor Turi King said “It was a pleasure to organise and host this event as I teach DNA fingerprinting and use it in my research. I realised that none of the people involved in the first cases had ever met. As well as contacting family from the murder case, and the detective at the time, I was also able to make contact with the family from the first scenario where DNA fingerprinting was used – an immigration case where Alec was able to reunite a family.”

As Detective Superintendent and Head of CID at Leicestershire Constabulary David Baker recalled his memories from leading the 1980s investigations into the murders of Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth. An article he read in the Leicester Mercury led him to Sir Alec Jeffreys and the subsequent use of DNA fingerprinting in solving both murders.

Professor Nishan Canagarajah announced at the event that David Baker is to be awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science (DSC) in recognition of his contribution to the use of science and technology in forensic investigation. The degree will be conferred at a graduation ceremony in July. David Baker was nominated by Professor King, Ather Mirza and Simon Cole.

It was also announced that a scholarship would be given in memory of Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth. Endowed in perpetuity, the Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth PhD Scholarship in the College of Life Sciences is to support the first steps in a new scientist’s career. This was organised by Professor King and Professor Phil Baker of the College of Life Sciences.

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