Photography: Douglas Vernimmen
In his lecture “Progress in Biology”, delivered on March 12th, 1924, on the occasion of the Centenary of Birkbeck College, London, William Bateson reflected on the revolution in the depth and precision of biological investigation brought about by the development of the microscope. In particular, he comments: “living organisms are systems which have the power of continual and spontaneous division. In that they are unique. How they divide could not even be imagined, much less investigated, without the microscope; but nothing in the history of discovery is more curious than this fact, that until well into the nineteenth century, men should not have known familiarly that living things come into existence solely by a process of orderly division. The conception of the cell as a unit was necessary to give anything like accuracy to this knowledge”.
Would Bateson have been surprised to learn that it was the art of genetic investigation, no less, that enabled (arguably in combination with biochemistry) the sophisticated understanding we have today of cell division? I suspect not – Bateson understood the relationship between genotype and phenotype and must have thought about the likely importance of genes in controlling every aspect of life. He would, or course, have been delighted, fascinated, and excited in equal measure. And so it was, that when the Genetics Society came to consider upon whom to bestow the honour of the Centenary Medal, there was only ever one serious contender – Paul Nurse.
Many have written about the beauty and richness of Paul’s contributions to our understanding of the molecular basis of cell division, and I won’t rehearse this here. Suffice to say, there could be no more worthy winner of the Genetics Society Centenary medal, no better way to celebrate 100 years of genetic discoveries, no better link back to Bateson and the origins of the Society, and no more fitting inscription in the medal itself than Bateson’s microscope.
When we wrote to Paul back in 2017 to see if he would be minded to accept the medal, he replied “I cannot tell you how delighted I am that you should think of me for the Genetics Society Centenary Medal. I am very fond of the Society and had a very enjoyable time as President probably now 25 years ago”. Well it was certainly very enjoyable for the Society to host Paul as the Centenary medal winner on its actual 100th birthday on 25th June 2019. The presentation and lecture was the centrepiece of the birthday celebration at the John Innes Centre (Bateson was its first Director), followed by a brilliant party at The Assembly House in Norwich, complete with DNA cocktails, nucleotide cupcakes, a “punnet square” of puddings, and even a specially written song on the history of genetics. Here’s to the next 100 years.
Alison Woollard, VP Public Understanding of Genetics Nature 113, 681-2, 1924