Professor John Gurdon

We delve into the life of one of the most famous Old Edgeburians, Professor John Gurdon…

During his time at the school in the 1940’s, John Gurdon had hopes and dreams as extravagant as the next boy, however at the age of 15 a school report which could have been a death knell to those aspirations, proved to be a catalyst.

When it came to leave Edgeborough in 1946, Gurdon went to Eton and just two years later he was ranked last out of the 250 boys in his year group at biology. As well as the rock bottom ranking, he was also in the bottom set in every other science subject and received a rather unsavoury half-term report.

In the summer term of 1949 his teacher gave scathing feedback on his termly report. “It has been a disastrous half. His work has been far from satisfactory… He will not listen but will insist on doing his work in his own way.”

If the latter quote wasn’t a pre-cursor to where this story was heading, the final few lines of the report certainly were: “He has ideas about becoming a Scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous. If he can’t learn simple biological facts he has no chance of doing the work of a specialist.”

Fast forward 64 years and the OE had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his discovery that mature cells can be converted to stem cells.

It was when Gurdon was at Oxford as a postgraduate student that he published his ground-breaking research on genetics and proved for the first time that every cell in the body contains the same genes.

He made his discovery by taking a cell from an adult frog’s intestine, removing its genes and implanting them into an egg cell, which grew into a clone of the adult frog. His ideas and findings caused controversy at the time due to the contradictory nature of previous studies by much more senior scientists. It was a decade before his work became widely accepted.

His findings led directly to the most notorious cloning of all time, Dolly the Sheep by Prof Ian Wilmut in 1996.

Gurdon shared the Nobel Prize with Professor Shinya Yamanaka and it was the former Edgeborough pupil’s work that led to Yamanaka’s discovery that adult cells can be “reprogrammed” into stem cells for use in medicine.

Dubbed “one of the great minds of his generation”, John spoke to us about his time at the school, saying: “In my time, I considered it to be an excellent school and that the staff were all very supportive and extremely pleasant people.”