Socialist Worker

Fred Sanger 1918-2013

John Parrington pays tribute to the visionary geneticist who transformed our understanding of the human body and took a principled stand against fascism

Issue No. 2380

Fred Sanger in his lab in 1950

Fred Sanger in his lab in 1950 (Pic: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory )


Fred Sanger, one of Britain’s greatest scientists and twice winner of the Nobel Prize, died this week.

The technologies he invented to decipher the genetic code revolutionised our understanding of how the body works, as well as having immense practical implications for medicine.

A central concept in our current understanding of life is that biological information is passed down through the generations as a linear code.

This code originates in DNA, and must then be translated by cells into the complex structures of proteins. These are the building blocks of the body, as well as its engines and transport system.

Remarkably, Sanger not only invented the technology to “read” the DNA code, but he also discovered the means to unlock the information in proteins.

His work directly underpins every diagnostic test for diseases such as cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy. It also continues to inform our understanding of our genes and how they shape humanity.

Yet Sanger was not only a great scientist but also a life-long socialist who realised that even the greatest technological breakthroughs mean little if society only benefits the rich.

He was a staunch opponent of fascism and war-mongering in the 1930s, and he was still just as committed to anti-fascist politics in the 1990s. Sanger co-signed a letter to New Scientist magazine urging scientists to get involved in the Anti Nazi League and other initiatives to block the then-growing threat of the fascist British National Party.

Perhaps the best epitaph for Sanger is his own words:

“I believe that we have been doing this not primarily to achieve riches or even honour, but rather because we were interested in the work, enjoyed doing it and felt very strongly that it was worthwhile

“It is like a voyage of discovery into unknown lands, seeking not for new territory but for new knowledge. It should appeal to those with a good sense of adventure.”


Article information

Obituary
Thu 21 Nov 2013, 16:10 GMT
Issue No. 2380
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