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Sir John Sulston FRS (1942–2018)

Humanists UK was sad to learn at the weekend of the death of Nobel Prize-winning scientist and patron of Humanists UK Sir John Sulston. He had died a few days previously, on 6 March 2018.

Sir John showed a very early interest in how things work, and it was this fundamental curiosity which drove a lifetime of pioneering work in science. After completing his PhD at Cambridge on the chemical synthesis of DNA, he moved to the US to study pre-biotic chemistry (the origins of life on Earth). In 1969, he returned to Cambridge where he studied the biology and genetics of the nematode worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, and where he and his collaborators eventually sequenced its genome. In 1992, Sulston was appointed the first Director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire. There he led a team of several hundred scientists who completed the sequencing of one third of the 3-billion-letter human genome, together with the genomes of many important pathogens such as the tuberculosis and leprosy bacilli. Following publication of the first draft sequence of the human genome in 2000 he was listed among the UK ‘s 100 most powerful people by The Observer, and he received his knighthood for services to genome research in the 2001 New Year’s Honours.

As the leader of one of the four principal sequencing centres in the world, he was a major influence on the Human Genome Project as a whole, particularly in establishing the principle that the information in the genome should be freely released so that all could benefit. He was chosen by the Independent for its ‘Good List 2006’ of ‘50 campaigners, thinkers and givers’ for mapping the human genome ‘for public good, not private profit’. He said:

‘It seemed to me self-evident that on both moral and practical grounds the human genome itself (as opposed to inventions that may be made from a knowledge of it) is an inappropriate subject for commercial investment and ownership.’

In 2000 he resigned as director of the Sanger Centre though he continued to work on the Human Genome Project publications and on outstanding problems with the worm genome. He was a member of the Human Genetics Commission and an advisory group on intellectual property set up by the Royal Society. In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine jointly with Sydney Brenner and Bob Horvitz, for the work they had done in understanding the development of the worm and particularly the role of programmed cell death.

Sir John’s curiosity about the world also extended to a curiosity and interest in people, which brought him into a range of campaigns and activities for a fairer world. He wrote more about free release and global inequality in The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics and the Human Genome (co-written with Georgina Ferry, Bantam Press, 2002). In recognition of his achievements in science, he was appointed a patron of Humanists UK, and took a special interest in Humanists for a Better World, its network of members active in sustainability, ecology, and global justice campaigns.

Sir John Sulston’s father was an Anglican priest and he has described his upbringing and loss of faith:

‘He brought me up as a Christian, and it was a source of distress to him that I lost my faith, as they say, during my adolescence. That was a hard struggle, one of the hardest I’ve had. When I tried to talk to my fellow students about it at Cambridge I found them uncomprehending, not seeing it as very important in the scheme of things: but I had had to choose between my judgement and my father. It was a slight worry to me that our children were raised faithless – not prohibited, just not encouraged – in case the religious upbringing was essential to their moral development. Great relief that they’ve got on fine!’

As a patron of Humanists UK, Sir John was a regular participant in work to bring about a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevailed, and he was a steadfast campaigner for evidence-led public policy. He was, notably, one of the many public figures who signed a Humanists UK open letter challenging Prime Minister David Cameron on his divisive ‘Christian country’ rhetoric in 2014, and was a prominent supporter of Humanists UK’s successful ‘Teach evolution, not creationism’ campaign. His campaigning with Humanists UK was a feature of his life until the very end; an open letter he signed, calling on Education Secretary Damian Hinds to retain the 50% cap on faith-based admissions in schools, was published on the day he died.

Over the weekend, Humanists UK patrons from the world of science were among those paying tribute to Sir John’s life and work. Professor Alice Roberts described him ‘a wonderful scientist and deeply moral man who believed in the pursuit of science for the good of humanity’, while Dr Adam Rutherford wrote that he was ‘one of the great scientists of our age, and fundamentally changed how we do genetics. We are all in his debt.’ Humanists UK Vice President Jim Al-Khalili wrote that Sir John ‘will be remembered as one of the greatest British biologists.’

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said, ‘I will always be grateful for the enormous contributions John has made to humanism in the UK and around the world. John was a prominent man and a giant in his field but he always made time to contribute to any Humanists UK campaign that needed him. We will all miss him for his steadfastness in our cause.’

Notes

For further comment or information please contact Humanists UK’s Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on richy@humanism.org.uk or 07815 589636.

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

Humanists UK has well over 150 patrons who support its work in various ways through their expertise and prominence in various fields. Existing patrons include significant figures from the spheres of science, philosophy, human rights activism, politics, the arts, and broadcasting. The President of Humanists UK is the writer and comedian Shappi Khorsandi, who is supported by Vice Presidents Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Professor A C Grayling, and Polly Toynbee. For a full list of patrons, see https://humanism.org.uk/about/our-people/patrons.

Humanists UK recently changed its name from the British Humanist Association: https://humanism.org.uk/2017/05/22/bha-becomes-humanists-uk/

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