JSS: When I got to Birmingham University, as I said, the first years had to be shared but I got lectures from a brilliant lecturer, a not very pleasant man, but a brilliant lecturer in genetics. And I decided when he asked me to go into the first year in genetics which would be the third year at university. I took some time and then I said 'yes' and eventually I graduated with first class honours in genetics.

INT: And you got a first class honours? And I believe that was the first degree in single genetics.

JSS: It was the first. First 'first'. The others got two... as far as I remember it was a relatively small class, but maybe second... I don't remember what everybody... There was no other first, there was no other first that year in the whole biological sciences. So that was; botany, zoology, at that time and genetics. I had the only one. The year before there were two firsts but not genetics, they were, as far as I remember, either both in zoology or one in zoology and one in botany. Firsts were very hard to get in those days.

INT: Very rare. And you decided then to go into academics?

JSS: I was offered then to, and again there had to be an interview, I was offered to do a PhD in Birmingham University with the small group of lecturing staff there. And I had to go to London to be interviewed and I got an agricultural research council scholarship which was as good as you could get. That was £300 a year, tax free. I'm mentioning this to you because actually later on I had a letter from the inspector of taxes saying "why had I not registered". I said "my award is tax free". We had several letters coming which ended up being from the inspector of taxes "it appears that your A.R.C grant is tax free". No apology or anything.

INT: Sorry say the name of the grant, the type of grant. The grant was called the...?

JSS: A.R.C - Agricultural Research Council.

INT: Ah right, OK.

INT: And did that mean that you had to specialise in one particular area?

JSS: Oh yes, that and I had to do it with Martin Reece and a couple of other people. But I was really not much supervised but that's beside the point. You can see my PhD thesis if you want to.

INT: And what was it on? What was your subject?

JSS: I specialised, I managed to isolate unusual Aspergillus, it's a fungus, from the top of a marsala bottle cork. And it turned out to be very interesting and I developed that so... Really I could have stayed in that subject if I wanted to but at the same time, I had my own problem there, but at the same time the problem I was given is to investigate heterothallism in wild Aspergillus. That was an interesting investigation and I did that too so I had two parts of the thesis. My 'prof' said at the time that I was 'gilding the lily' whatever that means but it really hooked me onto research. The fact that I didn't have a supervisor, I'd had a supervisor nominally but he was on external leave in Scandinavia with (???). So I really had no supervision.

NT: And thereafter what happened John? Where did you go next?

JSS: I, let me try to say this, I had a number of, once I got my PhD, no before I got my PhD, I was attracted by one of the competitors so I still was writing it up and the competitor was in Glasgow. So I went after two years in Birmingham with no supervision I went to Glasgow with no supervision. But, I was now an assistant, really an assistant lecturer with Pontecorvo here in Glasgow. And I wrote a... I was married after the first year of my PhD work still in Birmingham, to Barbara, we've just had our 60th wedding anniversary.

INT: Congratulations.

JSS: I'll show you. We had it in the teeth of opposition from her mother.

INT: She didn't approve of you did she?

JSS: I was a refugee, a Jew, penniless as far as we were very poor and she didn't approve. You can ask Barbara, she will give you an even better description. However it worked out OK. After two years we came to Glasgow. Barbara worked in the, she was a nurse, and Barbara worked in the Queen Mother's I think for a short time. Then we had at the very end while I was finishing my PhD thesis, to be submitted to Birmingham of course, we had our first, our eldest, child. And so he was born just before we left again for here and I dipped his foot into Loch Lomond.

INT: A true Scot.

JSS: To remind him of when we were...I went into Pirbright, I was given the opportunity to become something new for them, a geneticist in Pirbright and this is when I switched to viruses. I worked on foot and mouth disease virus. And I worked in Pirbright, I had assistants and started genetics of FMD – Foot and Mouth Disease. Do you want me to go on or not?

INT: Yes please.

JSS: Well I was in Pirbright, now I was, we had a house there that was provided. When we came in it was a brand new house and there was seven different leaks from... but they had an organisation to put that right and I worked in, let me try and think, mainly Foot and Mouth but I became a senior worker there.

INT: A what worker sorry?

JSS: I became one of the senior...

INT: Ah senior.

JSS: We were called research officers and so on. And then, I'll make it quick because it's... As I say I started in the genetics section then Michael Stoker, who has just died, asked me to come up from Pirbright to give a lecture to his staff, his new staff. He had just started virology here in Glasgow. He was good friends with Pontecorvo and it's quite clear to me that Pontecorvo, who was a wonderful person and a very good scientist, had obviously recommended this because I had the flu when I came up and I gave this lecture straining and he, Stoker, then asked me to come to his office, which I did, and he said he won't beat about the bush. He was wanting to offer me a position there immediately. I said "that's impossible" I said "I have just obtained a visiting scientist or professorship..." (I think it was visiting scientist it was called) ..."position for the next 6 months with Renato Dulbecco." Dulbecco won the Nobel prize subsequently. And not thanks to me but thanks to his work in California at California Institute of Technology .And I had a grant so it was OK. And Stoker said "That's OK, you'll have this, sort of, sabbatical leave before you even start". I don't remember his exact words but he obviously wanted me there and M.R.C will take over the grant from the A.R.C itself. The grateful people in Pirbright, I was just about to be promoted, stopped that promotion in Pirbright then, but asked me to appoint a replacement for myself so I appointed the next geneticist. It's so funny, it's unbelievable. But you don't want to...

INT: So who did you appoint then?

JSS: Pringle.

INT: Ah right.

JSS: Craig Pringle. And Craig Pringle invented... do you know who...?

INT: My husband's talked about Craig Pringle.

JSS: Yes, I appointed Craig Pringle.

INT: So when you came back from Caltech...

JSS: Well when I say I appointed, I recommended and that was the only recommendation.

INT: And then so you were 6 months in Caltech and then you came back to Glasgow?

JSS: Yes

INT: Is that correct?

JSS: It may have been slightly longer than 6 months, it was more, it may have been up to 8 months. I came back but I sent... I was poor, I was still on a British grant in America at that time which was not very good and I sent back Barbara and the children, but at that time we had just two, to Pirbright where we had been before until I would come back and so I came. When Dulbecco found out how poor we really were he suddenly got me an extra $500, which was quite a bit, per month but then Barbara just left so.

INT: He meant well.

JSS: And then it came to Michael Stoker. I did not go to the university. I went to the virology unit. He was both Professor of Virology and director of the M.R.C unit. So I was now in M.R.C from A.R.C, Agricultural Research Council.

INT: To the medical research.

JSS: To the Medical Research Council. And the work went pretty reasonable here and that's... But I was M.R.C and then I had made a couple of discoveries which are irrelevant at the moment but, well, I won't go into that. And I was asked whether, whether I would like to come to Seegmiller to do some of the work, this was with cells rather than anything else, and come as a sort of visiting professor at that time. It wasn't really a visiting professor but it was really doing research at NIH, that is National Institute of Health in Bethesda. And I then came... and then Stoker, I was out, I'd gone out there to do this because when Michael Stoker was resigning and was trying to do into the ICRF he, there were three, no four, senior scientists of which I was one who did not know what was going to happen. And there was so many rumours and what... Stoker offered all of these a position there, now the letter is still somewhere here, he offered, he was very good, and I would have gone to him.

INT: And where was that sorry?

JSS: This was in 1968.

INT: And where was he?

JSS: Oh he was here, he was still, but he had accepted, he had accepted the position of, in London, to become the research director in the Imperial Cancer Research Fund – ICRF. He offered me the position, what would have been a good position. Earlier he had been offered a chair in Oxford and when he was offered that he consulted us but we would not have had a laboratory. Facilities were very limited so we would not have had much advantage of uprooting, going there without that. And none of us, I can't speak for all the others but probably, did not feel that they could accept this place so he refused the Oxford one and then accepted the ICRF one. This time, of course, he could offer us a lot more laboratory space and the others, Crawford and MacPherson, went with him and stayed there and I suddenly got... I went out to Seegmiller and then I had a call, the Principal of the university would like to interview me. Don't forget I was not at university so I came back and strangely enough as soon as I came back, Barbara can tell you that, there wasn't a... this was in December just after Christmas, just then. There was a letter or she had information, I don't know if it was a letter or not, saying "the interview is off". But I had arrived, I had to get that information, so I just went to bed after flying the Atlantic and so on being, at last, with my family. And then a few days later the interview was on again and I was offered the position that Stoker had had, in other words, the position of now full professor in the university, responsible for the department and more important really, the director of the whole institute of virology, which included the MRC virology unit, which was a big research institute by then. In a building, believe it or not, that building had been built by the same person that built the Coventry Cathedral, the architect, anyway I'm reminiscing here and I shouldn't do that. But that's how I came...

INT: And you said yes?

JSS: And then I was stuck.

INT: Right.

JSS: And I held that position until I retired in '94, from '68 to '94.

INT: So, tell me, tell Clare and I a little bit as well about the CIBA medal. Because I don't think we kind of noted it down properly last time. So the CIBA award...?

JSS: It's strange, I...

INT: We have a photograph of it.

JSS: You've got a photograph, OK. It was just for various bits of research or researching that I'd done and established. There's also something else which I almost feel should not have been done, not the CIBA, this was the International Herpes Virology Commission instituted a lecture which was in my name but that shouldn't have been done until I was safely dead.

INT: No I don't think so.

INT: It's nice you know about it. It's good that you know about it.

JSS: Well you couldn't help know it because this is an annual thing and as far as I know until at least a year ago or so there was still enough money to have it so it was, it's been going for a long time. I mean they just appoint somebody. I have nothing to do with it anymore and they gave me a golden whistle, did Barbara tell you that?

INT: I thought that was wonderful but I was going to ask is the lecture held in the same place every year?

JSS: No, different places, wherever the international meeting takes place. During my time I ran these meetings in several places, one in, one of them in Cambridge and another one in Edinburgh. Most of them are in other places, either in Italy or France and in the States, quite a lot of them in the States. So I've become reasonably accepted.

INT: I think highly accepted.

INT: And your golden whistle what was that representing?

JSS: I was astonished. When I retired, you haven't seen it have you?

INT: No. Show it to us afterwards, tell us about it first.

JSS: I can't tell you anything except that I was so astonished to get it, so I tried it and it works.

INT: And it was from your research on herpes, was it?

JSS: From the international community. Strangely enough that's the first time as far as I'm aware this was done. But it says from the international community but they didn't put my name on it.

INT: Well you better not lose it then.

JSS: Well I can sell it now. No it was astonishing. They also supported with the cost. Barbara had been very ill at that time. They had ships to Alaska from the last meeting it was in Vancouver to Alaska. That's the only time I've been to Alaska, it was quite nice, and it was on a cruise ship simply and solely because Barbara was not very well and it was very important that there would be a doctor there and she didn't need it as it is. And so at different places where we stopped... we flew onto a glacier, the sort of life that I never enjoyed and didn't know quite how to handle it, but it was ok.

INT: Now wait, I better say, this is Barbara, John's wife. Barbara.

SS: Right so, the two boys were at two different technical colleges trying to get their exams and I was at Birmingham Technical College. John was at Aston which eventually became the University of Aston and it turned out that I was sitting with, I can remember an Irish girl I can't remember what her name was at all, I was sitting with this girl and it appears we were chatting. She was very talkative and it turned out John was sitting...

JSS: Trying to read calculus actually and I remember the book itself: 'Calculus made easy' by Silvanus P. Thompson and two girls came in and they were chatting continuously, they sat behind me, you know it wasn't very full. So eventually I turned round and said "For god's sake shut up" and that's how I met my wife.

INT: That's an unusual chat up line I think.

INT: That's right, it is.

BSS: Well it wasn't a very long...we weren't going out for very long. We were married in...

JSS: Several years later.

BSS: On August 22nd 1953 which means 57 years we've been married. My mother disapproved very much. I married a student, I married a Jew, and I married a foreigner. Now what on earth worse could you possibly do?

JSS: The opportunity came to try to get a job as a geneticist and so on and I was encouraged to apply from different places. There were actually three different places. The first of these would have been in the West Indies and your wife would have had a servant at that time and all sorts of things like that. And the man who interviewed me had been a Colonel in the past and I was of course very delighted not to have anything to do with the army anymore and then he suddenly looked at my CV and said, "I see you were in the army", I admitted that that was so, "Parachute regiment. OK, you spent three years in this, what do you think of this army thing?". I said "After the first year when we got through the sort of interesting problems, it was a sheer waste of time". And you don't say that to a Colonel normally so the West Indies were out. We were not that interested. The second was in Sheffield and the third was in Glasgow. When I went to Sheffield for an interview it was a dreadful day, thick fog and I looked at it and there were grey tulips, they were yellow actually, but I wasn't too keen on Sheffield at all. However I...There was no problem with the interview but then I went to Glasgow and here was Pontecorvo, Guido Pontecorvo was at that time leader and the type of research that I was doing was in fungi at that time. And his department was mainly interested also in fungal genetics. He worked on a slightly different organism than the one I had and he had done an enormous amount of work, but I was the only one who was working on my system and it had gone well. Anyway I got the job and Ponte was a friend ever since really, although I only spent two years with Ponte and then went to...it was recommended at the time when I got my P.H.D that I should start a genetics section in Pirbright which was foot and mouth disease research institute. I went to Pirbright, Pirbright in Surrey.

INT: How long were you looking at foot and mouth?

JSS: I was working in foot and mouth from '56, '56 I left from Pontecorvo who is genetics in Glasgow, I went to Pirbright and I was there for about four and a half years. I went in for a relatively...OK, I went from there to California, to the California Institute of Technology to work with Renato Dulbecco who since, and he was a wonderful man to work with, but he got the Nobel prize later but it's not relevant except it shows you there was some quality there.

INT: I would say so.

INT: Great quality indeed.

JSS: And before, when I still was in the foot and mouth disease institute because Michael Stoker my predecessor there and Pontecorvo were very friendly and were working together, Ponte must have told him that if he wanted a geneticist then this was probably... And I was offered, I was offered a position there, I said "I am now committed to go to California for a while". He said well you can start life on that as a sabbatical. So I had a sabbatical before I ever worked for the MRC.

Listen to the testimony

Links to other testimonies from John Subak Sharpe

Creative Commons

Unless otherwise stated, the content on gatheringthevoices.com is available to re-publish under the terms of the Creative Commons license.

Please check our Terms of Use for details on what is allowed when using our material.