Oliver Smithies, PhD
The ability to artificially alter DNA opens the door to new scientific understanding and treatments for various diseases. Oliver Smithies, PhD, made the crucial discovery that a disease-causing gene could be modified. For that and other groundbreaking work, he, along with two other scientists, was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Dr. Smithies died on January 10, 2017. He was 91 years old.
Dr. Smithies was born in the industrial town of Halifax, West Yorkshire, England, on June 25, 1925, to William and Doris Smithies. His father was an insurance salesman and his mother was an English teacher. A bout with rheumatic fever at age 7 left him with a mitral valve murmur, which precluded him from playing sports for several years; during this time, he learned to enjoy reading and problem-solving. Sometime before he was 11, he read a comic book in which the star character was a mad scientist. Dr. Smithies recalled that from that moment, he also wanted to be a scientist, but not of the mad variety.
Pioneering Work in Genetics
In 1946, Dr. Smithies was awarded his BA in animal physiology and chemistry from Balliol College at the University of Oxford. He received his PhD in biochemistry in 1951, after which he was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship in the United States at the laboratory of J.W. Williams at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Chemistry. However, a visa problem forced him to leave the United States. He spent from 1953 to 1960 as an associate researcher in the Connaught Medical Research Laboratory at the University of Toronto, Canada. While there, he also learned genetics from Norma Ford Walker, PhD, at the Hospital for Sick Children.
Dr. Smithies returned to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1960, where he worked in the Department of Genetics until 1988, when he assumed the position of Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He continued his work there until well into his 80s. It was there where he developed gene targeting of mice, a method of replacing mouse genes using homologous recombination, which is the basis to investigate the role of particular genes in the development of several human diseases, such as cancer. For this pioneering work, he was awarded the Noble Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2007.
His Inventor’s Philosophy
Dr. Smithies, a naturalized American citizen, was a licensed pilot who enjoyed flying gliders. He was a self-proclaimed tinkerer and inventor who admitted he had trouble passing a junkyard without wandering in to look for useful items. In an interview, he summed up his inventor’s philosophy: “You use whatever is lying around, and you see something that needs to be done, and you try it. I think it is making things work, you know, somehow.” ■