Celebrating the life of Oliver Smithies

In 2008 I was honoured to meet Dr Oliver Smithies at the eponymous Smithies -Maeda Laboratories at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. I was invited to speak to him, and members of his laboratory about the importance of outreach on the animal research issue. Despite the prestige of a Nobel Prize (which he won in 2007), he was a down-to-earth, likeable scientist whose passion for genetics had helped him to the ultimate scientific reward. His attitude to his scientific endeavours can best be summed up from his words at a ceremony honouring him at UNC:

“I don’t go to work every day; I go to play every day. And that’s my advice to students here today: find something you love so much that you can say – as I can say – I never did a day’s work in my life.”

Tom Holder meets Nobel Prize Laureate Oliver Smithies
Speaking of Research founder, Tom Holder, meets Dr Oliver Smithies at the Smithies-Maeda Laboratories in 2008

Born in Yorkshire, England and educated at the University of Oxford, where he gained his undergraduate degree and DPhil, Smithies moved to the Canada in 1954 to start his post-doc research before finally moving to the US in 1960 (read his Nobel biography).

His early notable work, while working at the University of Toronto, was to develop a technique of gel electrophoresis using a potato starch matrix. His method, using Danish potato starch, is still used in medical research and forensics today, to help identify certain proteins (read more here).

Image by The Scientist. Click to Enlarge.
Image by The Scientist. Click to Enlarge.

Dr Oliver Smithies won his Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2007, shared with Mario Capecchi and Sir Martin Evans, for “their discoveries of principles for introducing specific gene modifications in mice by the use of embryonic stem cells”. The relevant research by Smithies was conducted at the University of Wisconsin in the 1980s where he developed a method of gene targeting in mice by replacing single mouse genes using homologous recombination – changing specific regions of genome in cultured mouse cells. He continued to use this method at UNC in order to create genetically modified animal models of human diseases and conditions. Gene editing techniques continue to advance and support medical advances.

Sadly, on the 10th January 2017, Oliver Smithies passed away, aged 91. He leaves behind a scientific legacy that will forever influence the field of genetics. He is survived by his wife, Dr. Nobuyo Maeda, Robert H. Wagner Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the School of Medicine.

The following video was created by UNC-Chapel Hill, in Memoriam.

Oliver Smithies, 1925-2017

Tom Holder