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Fred Sanger 1918-2013

last modified Apr 23, 2018 12:28 PM
It was with the deepest of sadness that we learnt of the death of Fred Sanger OM, CH, CBE, FRS, FAA on 19th November 2013.

Fred was a legend become real - twice Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Companion of Honour, Order of Merit, FRS and recipient of countless other awards and distinctions. He was also one of the most unassuming, modest and kindly of men. A great mentor, a generous colleague and a passionate and creative scientist, his creative genius ushered in two successive revolutions in biological sciences. The first followed from his work on sequencing proteins (most notably insulin), for which he won the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1958. The second drove the evolution of genomics through his development of rapid and accurate DNA sequencing, for which he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1980. He was the only person awarded two Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and one of only four to win two Nobels.

Fred took Part II in Biochemistry at Cambridge in 1940, then gained his Ph.D. in 1943 from our Department where he had been a “self-funded” graduate student studying the metabolism of lysine. He then won a Beit Memorial Fellowship and painstakingly developed the technologies for sequencing proteins proving, in his successful elucidation of the primary sequences of the A and B chains of bovine insulin, that proteins possess a defined, unique chemical composition. By 1958 he and his colleagues had worked out the complete primary structure of the insulin heterodimer. In 1962, Fred moved to the new MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, where his remarkable experimental partnership with Al Coulson culminated in 1975 in the plus and minus technique for DNA sequencing, only to be rapidly superseded in 1977 by their own improved, and for two decades ubiquitous, dideoxy chain termination method. The scalability of the “Sanger” method in rapidly and accurately sequencing any lengths of DNA precipitated the Human Genome Project and, thereafter, the genomics revolution.

Fred was so unassuming that on meeting him it was initially difficult to believe that this was the double Nobel Laureate who had transformed experimental biology. In speaking with him, however, it became immediately evident that this self-effacing exterior hosted a unique intellect – a mind with the capacity to think about things in a completely different manner – an amazing crossword puzzle-solving intellect with a deep understanding of biological principles and the ability to think about them in a chemical way. We are all the poorer for his passing.


Jenny Barna

Publication Date

20 November 2013