Oliver Smithies [Heath 1936–1943]

Head and shoulders of Oliver Smithies
Oliver Smithies

Oliver Smithies was born on 23 June 1925 in Halifax, the son of William and Doris Smithies. He had a twin brother and a younger sister. His mother introduced him to literature, his father to mathematics. His grandfather taught him how to make useful things from junk, a talent that served him throughout his career. He said that his love of science came from an early fascination with radios and telescopes.

He attended Copley Junior School where a bout with rheumatic fever at the age of seven kept him out of sports activities. So he turned to books. He attended Heath Grammar School, as did his brother, Roger William, where he was ‘a dedicated scientist and a stalwart of the Scout Troop’ (John Palmer [1939–1946]). Getting a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, to study medicine, he changed to animal physiology and took his post-graduate degree in biochemistry, publishing his first research paper, co-written with his tutor, Alexander Ogston, in 1948 and receiving his DPhil in 1951.

Ogston recommended that he should go to the States but Smithies wasn’t very keen and it was a Rhodes scholar in Ogston’s lab who persuaded him to apply for a visiting fellowship at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, his home state. He was eventually awarded a Commonwealth Fund fellowship to take up a position in the United States, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Department of Chemistry but a problem with acquiring a US visa then forced him to leave the US. and, from 1953 to 1960, he worked in the Connaught Medical Research Laboratory at the University of Toronto in Canada. There he developed the technique of gel electrophoresis using a starch matrix. He used this to reveal differences between normal human plasma proteins, and in collaboration with Norma Ford Walker, showed that the variation was inherited, which stimulated his interest in genetics. The high-resolution gels that he created allowed researchers to study blood proteins effectively. Before this, scientists thought that blood plasma contained five different proteins. He found 25 proteins.

In 1960, he returned to the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he worked in the Department of Genetics until 1988, in due course becoming Leon J. Cole and Hilldale Professor of Genetics and Medical Genetics. While at the University of Wisconsin in the 1980s, he developed gene targeting in mice, something which Mario Capecchi also developed independently. This work came from his desire to replace the gene responsible for sickle-cell disease with a normal gene and was at the foundation of the field of gene therapy.

He married Lois Kitze, a virologist at the University of Wisconsin, in the 1950s; they separated in 1978.

Nobuyo Maeda, who was to become his second wife, left her parents’ home in 1978 to do postdoctoral work in physiological chemistry at Wisconsin. It was the first time she had lived on her own, away from her family. After obtaining a post at the National Institutes of Health in Washington D.C in 1980, she lost it almost immediately, as a foreigner, to an executive order of the new President, Ronald Reagan. Smithies was persuaded to take her on in his lab and she began developing his work in new directions.

When she could not obtain a post at the University of Wisconsin, but obtained one at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he moved with her there in 1988 to become Excellence Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and continued to work in his lab there daily into his eighties. He loved physically doing science: designing his experiments, mixing his own reagents and building new equipment when what he wanted was not commercially available. He created the first animal model of cystic fibrosis in 1992.

By this time, he had become a naturalised US citizen.

He won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, jointly with Capecchi and Evans,

for their discoveries of principles for introducing specific gene modifications in mice by the use of embryonic stem cells.

At the 2007 University Day ceremony, four days after he learned of his Nobel Prize, the then Chancellor James Moeser granted Smithies a true rarity at Carolina: a free parking space for life. At the time, he said the idea of retirement hadn’t entered his mind. I’ve always said if I were to die somewhere, which certainly will happen, it might as well be at the bench because that’s where I’m happy.

On he made a short visit to Halifax to unveil a plaque at Copley Junior School to commemorate his attendance. Head teacher Nan Oldfield, kindly invited members of HOBA to catch up with him during his visit. They were invited to join the children for lunch; Graham Smith, John Davey, John Bunch and Mick Hynes represented HOBA and were well looked after by the children. John Bunch presented Oliver with the scroll of former Heath headmasters, together with the book which was published to record the amalgamation of Heath and Crossley & Porter.

He co-authored a total of more than 350 research papers and reviews, dating from 1948 to 2016. In 2016, UNC launched the Oliver Smithies Research Archive website to make available to the world the 150-plus notebooks where he recorded his notes daily, a habit he began as a graduate student at Oxford.

Besides his passion for science, Oliver loved flying single-engine aeroplanes and gliders and, despite being colour-blind, was a licensed private aeroplane pilot. In 1980, he was a co-pilot on a record-breaking crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a single-engine plane. The speed record held for 20 years.

He died on 10 January 2017.