Fred Sanger (profiled in Chemistry World in 2005) is the only person ever to have won the Nobel prize in chemistry twice. But that isn’t why he’s my hero. It’s certainly one (or, rather, two) of the reasons, but his unrivalled scientific standing coupled with a world renowned modesty (‘a modest man of strong opinions’ as the Wellcome Trust has it) is what really puts him in a different league.
He’s the only person to ever have won two chemistry Nobels, the only living person to have two Nobel prizes, one of only four people ever to have won two Nobel prizes at all, he showed us that proteins are made up of specific amino acid sequences, worked out how to sequence DNA and RNA, and had a world-leading genome-sequencing institute named after him. But, after retiring in 1983 from the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, he went home to look after his garden in Cambridgeshire. In the early days of his retirement, Sanger wrote a biography for the Annual Review of Biochemistry, which makes fascinating reading. In it, he says he surprised himself as much as his colleagues when he decided to give up research at the age of 65 and do some of the things that he’d always wanted to do but never had time for.
He might be modest, but he’s certainly not a mouse. Biographies across the web invariably include his response to single-Nobel-prize winner John Sulston’s suggestion that the Sanger Centre (later the Wellcome Trust Sanger Insitute) should be named in his honour: ‘It had better be good’.
Another of his quotes that doesn’t get such widespread coverage, but makes the point even more strongly, was in my brothers’ school magazine. Fred Sanger was an old boy at the school, and was interviewed by one of the pupils when the school was planning it’s own Sanger Centre for science and mathematics. Asked what he had left to do, having been awarded two Nobel prizes, he explained to the wide-eyed teenager: ‘Win a third Nobel prize’.