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expert reaction to news of the death of Fred Sanger

Dr Frederick Sanger, a Cambridge scientist whose work pioneered research into the human genome and won him two Nobel prizes, died aged 95.


Professor Alan Ashworth, Chief Executive of The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said:

“Fred Sanger made a huge contribution to science through his brilliance in inventing technologies to study the sequence of DNA. The technical advances he pioneered have been critical to the study of cancer and its genetic origin.”


Dr. Sarah Main, Director of The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), said:

“Young scientists and engineers can take Fred Sanger’s life and work as an inspiration. He was an archetypal honourable scientist. His work exemplifies the reason so many of us fight for blue skies research and argue that it can and does lead to human and economic benefit when least expected. Through investigation driven by curiosity and exploration of nature, he developed the single most influential technique in the birth of our new genetic era. Human genome sequencing, personalised cancer treatments and gene therapy only exist because of his work. He did not seek profit from his invention. And, like Tim Berners Lee, transformed the world with his work. He will be sadly missed and my thoughts go to his family and the multitude of students and scientists he inspired through his work”


Prof Sir Mike Stratton, Director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, said:

“Fred was an inspiration to many, for his brilliant work, for his quiet determination and for his modesty. He was an outstanding investigator, with a dogged determination to solve questions that have led to transformations in how we perceive our world.

“He combined this with a drive to interest young people in science. He refused most invitations for interviews, but often helped schools and students.

“He won two Nobel Prizes, one of only four people to do so. His work for his second Prize, a method to decode DNA, has transformed our understanding of life on earth and is the foundation of developments in healthcare from understanding inherited disease to developing new cancer treatment.

“It was an honour for this Institute when Fred acceded to founding Director John Sulston’s request that we be named after him. Fred’s only stipulation was that ‘It had better be good.’

“That typically Fred response is our inspiration and will continue to be so.”


Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, said:

“Sanger was a giant in genetics, who had an astonishing capacity to crack some of the most challenging problems in biology. His passing marks the end of an era in modern genetics.”


Dr. Craig Venter, Founder of the J. Craig Venter Institute, said:

“Fred Sanger was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. He twice changed the direction of the scientific world, first with the sequencing of insulin, proving that proteins were linear strings of amino acids and second with his then new method of sequencing DNA, which led to the field of genomics. His contributions will always be remembered.”


Dr. Richard Henderson, former Director of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, said:

“He was a superb hands-on scientist with outstanding judgement and skill, and an extremely modest yet encouraging way of interacting with his younger colleagues. I particularly remember one young scientist who had asked Fred for advice being told “I think you should try harder”. The example he set will continue to motivate young scientists even now he has gone.”


Dr. Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel laureate and Deputy Director of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, said:

“Fred was one of the outstanding scientists of the last century and it is simply impossible to overestimate the impact he has had on modern genetics and molecular biology. Moreover, by his modest manner and his quiet and determined way of carrying out experiments himself right to the end of his career, he was a superb role model and inspiration for young scientists everywhere.”


Prof Colin Blakemore, Professor of Neuroscience & Philosophy, School of Advanced Study, London and Former Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council, said:

“The death of a great person usually provokes hyperbole, but it is impossible to exaggerate the impact of Fred Sanger’s work on modern biomedical science. His invention of the two critical technical advances – for sequencing proteins and nucleic acids – opened up the fields of molecular biology, genetics and genomics. He remains the only person to have won two Nobel Prizes in Chemistry – recognising his unique contribution to the modern world. Yet he was a disarmingly modest man, who once said: “I was just a chap who messed about in his lab”. The journal Science rightly described him as “the most self-effacing person you could hope to meet”. Fred Sanger was a real hero of twentieth-century British science.”


Dr. Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said:

“I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of Fred Sanger, one of the greatest scientists of any generation and the only Briton to have been honoured with two Nobel Prizes. Fred can fairly be called the father of the genomic era: his work laid the foundations of humanity’s ability to read and understand the genetic code, which has revolutionised biology and is today contributing to transformative improvements in healthcare.

“We are honoured that the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, which has done so much to develop our understanding of the genome and apply it to medicine, bears his name, and that the Wellcome Library holds his papers for posterity.”


Dr. Rebecca Nesbit, Society of Biology, said:

“We are saddened to hear of the death of our Honorary Fellow Dr Fred Sanger but we should take this moment to celebrate his life and his huge contribution to science. He transformed our understanding of how living organisms are built at the molecular level and revolutionised the way we think about biology. To be the recipient of two Nobel prizes is a remarkable achievement and his work continues to have a daily impact on science and society. The sequencing of  insulin was of great medical importance, but it also altered the way that we think about proteins in other areas of science and medicine, bringing us closer to our current understanding of proteins as having distinct chemical composition, shape and structure. His pioneering work on DNA sequencing in the 1970s laid the foundation for our knowledge of DNA sequences in areas as diverse as medical screening and plant pathology. Despite the astounding rate at which we are learning about our genome, the “Sanger” method of DNA sequencing for which he was awarded the 1980 Nobel Prize is still in use today.”

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