Dame Bridget Ogilvie, parasitologist and immunologist

Parasitologist and Immunologist

Dame Bridget OgilvieBridget Margaret Ogilvie was born in Glen Innes, New South Wales in 1938. She finished her secondary education at New England Girls’ School in 1955. Ogilvie then enrolled in a science degree at the University of Queensland (1956), but quickly realised a greater passion for rural science. She transferred to the University of New England where she completed a BRurSc (Hons I) degree, graduating with the University medal (1960). Ogilvie was awarded a Commonwealth scholarship which enabled her to pursue a PhD at the University of Cambridge, England (1960–64). Her thesis research investigated immunity to intestinal nematodes.

In 1963 Ogilvie was invited to join the department of parasitology at the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill, London. She was appointed first as a Wellcome Animal Health Trust fellow (1963–66), and then as a member of scientific staff spending the next 20 years with the Wellcome Trust. In the same period, Ogilvie was a trustee of the National Museum of Science and Industry (1992–2003) and was on the UK Council for Science and Industry (1993–2000). Since leaving the Wellcome Trust, Ogilvie has served on numerous advisory boards and committees including the AstraZeneca Science Teaching Trust, Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, Association of British Science Writers and Association of Medical Research Charities.

Dame Bridget has received many honours and awards for her contributions to science and medical research, including 24 honorary doctorates.

Interviewed by Professor Robyn Williams on 8 September 2011.


I am Robyn Williams and it is my great pleasure today to talk to Dame Bridget Ogilvie, who is both a Fellow of the Academy of Science in Australia and a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. Welcome.

Family history of educating women

Is Glen Innes a good place to start a career in science?

Actually, I really was lucky in my family, who happened to live at Glen Innes. We had a sheep property — fine wool. My father was a very unusual man for his generation. He was at Balliol College, Oxford, which was a transforming experience for him and so I feel deeply indebted to that institution. The family had a history of educating women. Two of my father’s sisters had degrees. So, as far as my father and my mother were concerned, there was just no question about it: if they had a bright child, whether male or female, they would get on.

Being a country girl, did you get into the field quite often and get to know the animals?

I did spend a lot of time on the farm, mustering, helping on the farm with the dogs and enjoying myself. The question that formulated in my mind then, which came to fruition in my research career, was, ‘why is it that you can vaccinate so successfully against Clostridia species with one shot, but helminths kept on persisting no matter how often you treated them with anthelmintics or, if they were external parasites, with insecticides?’ That question was an incredible influence at a very young age, when I was a primary school child.

Most primary school kids don’t think like that. Did your friends think like that at all?

I didn’t have any friends until I went to my primary school. Also, it was during the war and we didn’t play after school because petrol was limited. In some ways, it was an isolated existence, but I was as happy as a duck doing my own thing. I didn’t formally formulate that idea about parasites when I was a child. This happened during my undergraduate years. But looking back, it had a huge influence on me.

Really brilliant teachers

I was very lucky. Not only was I lucky enough to have a family with a history of education but I went to the local state primary school which had a really brilliant teacher, AB Clark. The school was a one teacher, one room bush school. The state department of education wanted this brilliant teacher to go to a bigger school, but he liked being a single teacher. There were four in my class — Johnny Pilling, Vincent Winter, Neil Hamilton and me. What the teacher did was to use the brighter children to help him. Then he put more attention on the kids who were struggling. Those of us, like me, who were brighter probably than the average, helped the others.

It’s a brilliant idea, isn’t it?

Yes. Apparently, in educational circles, this is a classic approach. By the time we all got to high school, all four in my class were well ahead from the primary curriculum. So what a stroke of luck: family and this brilliant teacher! He was an extraordinary man. When you are a child you think anybody over the age of 18 is Methuselah, so I had no idea of how old he was at that time. About 20 years ago, I thought, ‘I must see if this guy is still alive’. I managed to track him down in a home, he was over 90. I wrote to him to thank him. I had this sweet letter back saying, ‘Of course I remember you. I remember all the children who went through my hands.’ And he said a few things which made me realise that he did. Then he said, ‘I broke my wrist a while ago and my writing has changed’, but it hadn’t. Then he said, ‘PS: your brother Bill really wanted to be left handed but I persuaded him to be right handed. Is he still right handed?’ Sadly, he died two weeks before I paid my next visit to Australia. He was a brilliant guy. If you were to pass him in the street, you wouldn’t notice, but what a teacher! Because of him, I had an incredibly strong base for my subsequent education. Quite frankly, after that, it didn’t much matter what happened to me educationally, because I had had such a sound training at this one-teacher school.

Isn’t that interesting? Those magical teachers come up again and again in these interviews. One wonders: what if they hadn’t been there? What if that teacher hadn’t turned up? Would your career have been different?

Exactly! I went to a boarding school for my secondary education, and whilst there were two or three very good teachers, most of them were pretty ordinary.

That was NEGS, wasn’t it?

Yes. It didn’t really matter though because I had learned to work by myself. So no matter what happened, I could get on with it.

In those days, university wasn’t nearly as selective as it is now. My dear father was regarded as a deeply eccentric man, sending a daughter to university. A son would have been strange enough in that environment. My father’s bank manager called him in one day and said, ‘Look at all these red lines here’ — if you were in the negative everything in your accounts was in red — ‘you’re spending money on your daughter’s university education. You should be spending it on more fertiliser, John.’ John said to him, ‘Fred, as a matter of fact, it’s the finest form of fertiliser I know’. So wasn’t I lucky?

Did you sail through science at school?

We had chemistry, biology and maths but no physics. The chemistry teaching was pretty lousy until the last six months before the Leaving Certificate. Then a really brilliant teacher came in at about Easter. She had just finished doing her Dip Ed [Diploma of Education], after her undergraduate degree, and she instantly transformed the subject. It was extraordinary. She was a truly brilliant teacher. The half dozen of us who were doing chemistry all got through very well because of her. I went back two or three years later to see her and thank her. But she had died of leukaemia. Her name was Dorothy Shepherd. However, the maths teacher wasn’t very good, so I had to plough through more maths when I became an undergraduate.

Making the men competitive

At the University of New England?

No. I started at the University of Queensland, to do straight science. I found it deeply boring. It was all systematics, and this wasn’t what I was in university to do.

Classification of animals and all that.

Yes. It is important but, to me, it was just so boring. Then I read about this new course, rural science, at the University of New England. I thought this was much more my speed. So I went down to see the founding dean, Bill McClymont. I remember it well. He was thrilled. He was a veterinary graduate and knew that in undergraduate years in veterinary science courses where there were no women, the men didn’t work very hard. He said, ‘They’re all men’. I didn’t know any of this. I remember him throwing himself back in his office chair, putting his feet up on the desk and saying, ‘If you get through the subjects you are doing at the University of Queensland, you can come and join this class in its second year. That’ll make the so-and-sos work.’

At the end of our final year he showed me what happened. It was very interesting. The average mark was trundling along. Then I arrived and there were a couple of exams and I knocked the socks off them! Then the average mark went up by 15 per cent and stayed up. It wasn’t the colour of my eyes that made him want me there.

It wasn’t a distraction, having a woman there?

Well, they were all pretty shocked when I arrived. I am still in touch with the ones who are still alive. Only nine of us graduated and there are only four of us alive still. One of them, Terry Dawson, was teasing me the other day when I was out in Australia — he happens to have retired to Austinmer too, where I now have a house. He said teasingly, ‘The trouble was that, when you arrived, we had to play less rugby and drink less at the pub. You were a thorough nuisance.’ But they were very sweet to me.

Did you feel at all trepidatious about being the only woman in the class?

The strange thing was that I have never had the slightest problem with being the only woman in a group and the men have always been very nice to me, strangely enough.

You had no worries about the point of doing science and where it was leading you.

No, no, no.

You just did the next bit.

The thing that made me realise that I wanted to do research was the major research project in our fourth year. I really loved doing that. It was fantastic. Bill McClymont, the founding dean, was very keen to have some of his first graduates get off and do academic things, so he put me up in the first round of overseas Commonwealth scholarships. It happened that my ultimate PhD supervisor, Lawson Soulsby, now in the House of Lords, was visiting at that time and he interviewed me. That is how it all happened. I went to Cambridge to do my PhD after that.

At that stage had you been abroad at all?


‘Keeping term’ in Cambridge

So you left New South Wales, having been to Queensland briefly, and you arrive in the Fens. What impact did that have on you?

I was heavily briefed by my father, who had been at Oxford, and I knew what a tremendous influence it had been on him for the good. I was attached to Girton College — at that time there were only three colleges that you could be attached to if you were a female. I went to the college as soon as I arrived and they were totally disinterested. So I thought, ‘This is not quite what I expected’. I got together with some of the other graduate students and realised that the college at that time couldn’t give a toss about graduate students.

I very quickly had a tremendous row with them about keeping term. You were supposed to live in an approved place during term and somebody had to sign that you had done this. Because I was living in a flat by myself, I just signed the thing for myself and sent it back. Then I had this letter from my tutor, who was a classics Fellow and senior tutor of the college — saying, ‘Tut, tut, tut. You’ve signed your own residence certificate. This won’t do! You never appear at college. This won’t do! This is not the behaviour expected of a Commonwealth scholar!’ So I wrote to her and arranged an appointment. I went and said, ‘I don’t give a toss about the college because you don’t give a toss about me. I didn’t expect this. After all, this is not what I had been told would happen by my father who had been at Balliol College, Oxford.’ This woman was absolutely horrified. I remember her, a very little woman, going up and down on her heels, saying, ‘Nobody’s ever spoken about Girton like that before!’ So I smiled at her and said, ‘Well, it’s time they did’.

A few days later my supervisor, Lawson Soulsby, had a letter from this woman. He came into my lab and said, ‘Bridget, I’ve had a letter from Alison Duke, what have you been up to?’ He didn’t have a college. You didn’t automatically have a college if you were an academic in Cambridge. So I told him this story and he said, ‘I’ll soon fix that’. So things settled down.

But I always thought the great attraction of being at Oxford or Cambridge was college life. You didn’t bother with that at all.

Not as a graduate student. If I had lived in college, I would have had to get out at the end of every term. At Cambridge terms are only eight weeks long. If you were a graduate student you were there all the year, except for a holiday. There was no way I was going to get in and out of the college three times in the year. I had been at boarding school and in a residential university and I had had enough of all that stuff. I really was completely uninterested in the college, and the college was uninterested in us.

Parasitic PhD

What about the work itself? What about the lab?

I had a lot of fun doing that. I was given a problem which I didn’t think was doable for a single person. So I quickly changed my plans and discussed it with Soulsby. He essentially left me alone to get on with it. It was one of those old-fashioned PhDs, quite common then, where more or less you were allowed to choose a problem and told ‘please give me your thesis in three years time and I’ll see if it’s okay’.

Britain wasn’t very good at PhDs way back.

No, it wasn’t.

They were a German invention, which they were quite leery [suspicious] about.

Absolutely. I was already a very independent person, and this kind of independence suited me. There were three or four of us in the lab and we all got on well and supported each other. I think that often happens. It is a peer group support system.

What was your parasite of choice and what were you trying to follow up?

It was a little nematode parasite of the gut of rats and mice called Nippostrongylus brasiliensis. It was a very good thing to work with because it was easy to maintain in the lab. This was not long after the veterinary group up in Glasgow had invented a vaccine for cattle lungworm, so the whole world of parasitology was very interested in seeing if you could reproduce that in all sorts of other nematodes. I set about looking at the antigenicity of each life cycle stage of that parasite. We were also trying to culture it in vitro. It was fun. I had a very nice time, I enjoyed myself and I eventually got my PhD.

Then I decided that I needed to know more about immunology. I was lucky enough to get a one-­year fellowship to go to the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill. It was then a powerhouse of immunology under Peter Medawar’s leadership — John Humphrey, Avrion Mitchison, Brigitte Askonas — were all there. So I went there. I did well there, I enjoyed myself and had a fabulous time. Peter was very supportive.

Scientists as public speakers

Sir Peter Medawar, that great star. He got the Nobel Prize. He shared it in 1960 with Macfarlane Burnet, the Australian. That wasn’t just an ordinary Nobel Prize. That was a revolutionary change in scientific understanding, wasn’t it?

Peter got his Nobel Prize for working out why skin grafts are rejected. But by the time I got there, which was 1963, Peter was really more interested in his other enormous strength, which was writing and speaking. I think that was his greatest gift, it was just brilliant. When you heard Peter give a lecture or you read his books, it was just amazing. He was a really skilful proponent of science. He had an immense influence because of that. And he was an enormously striking man. Medawar is a Lebanese name. But he was born in Argentina and brought up and educated in the UK. He had a huge ego, which filled the room. As an Australian, I didn’t really enjoy that. The really admirable thing about Peter was that, once he had had his first major stroke, he lost that ego but initially retained a lot of his verbal strength. It was that that I really admired about Peter: one, that he had that incredible verbal gift in writing and in words, and two, how he dealt with his stroke subsequently.

In that regard he was a great example. Did he teach you much about the popularisation of science?

No, not really. That really started in my childhood. My father knew that all his great buddies on the land thought he was nuts to send his daughter to university. So it was a private joke between us — he would say to me, ‘Dear, what I’d like you to do is to talk to my old friends at social gatherings about what you’re doing because they’ll be interested in that.’ So I would be chatting away to his friends, and father would come up with a big smile, put his hand out and say, ‘This advice is costing me money, you know.’ That is really how it started. Then, as part of our course with the amazing Bill McClymont, during one vacation we were sent off to a week’s course run by the Toastmasters Association of New South Wales on meeting procedure, how to give a talk, how to give a vote of thanks and all the rest of it — a painful but incredibly valuable experience.

And you practised doing that.

That was a great start. It was brilliant, actually.

Subversive parasite infection

Your field is parasitology, but some of it is a bit abstract, for example, immunology. Were you able to talk about that stuff as well?

What I was trying to do, really, was to find out why these parasites didn’t induce an immune response that got rid of them. In the early sixties, we knew so little about the immune response. We knew that antibodies existed, but we knew nothing about their diversity and how they developed to be so specific. We didn’t know what the lymphocyte did until about that time. Jim Gowans showed what the lymphocyte did — it was key to the whole immune response. We didn’t know about T and B cells and the role of the thymus. The whole thing about soluble factors and cell receptors was long into the future.

Isn’t it amazing. As we speak, it is now the 50th anniversary of the time when Jacques Miller and others announced the function of the thymus gland which people thought was just in the neck for packing or something.

I know. What we did was to be closely involved with the immunology and see what happened in a major infection. What these parasites do is to stimulate an amazingly complex, massive immune response. I suppose there were two key things my contemporaries and I did as research scientists. One was to show that as well as all the usual IgG antibody responses and increases in leucocytes associated with infections in general, helminths induce an enormous IgE response and a huge proliferation of a special type of mast cell. The IgE antibodies are associated with allergy and the special type of mast cells are found in the gut wall and in the mucous-producing goblet cells found amongst the cells that line the inner surface of the gut. All these responses are under T lymphocyte control. Because of this great variety of immune responses, the task of analysing why infected animals may fail to expel their parasite was daunting. I left doing research in the early stages of this analysis.

What is the answer to that: the immune response and how it downplayed it?

What the parasites do is that they subvert the immune response. They induce regulatory T lymphocytes and special regulatory macrophages. These subvert not only the immune responses to the parasites themselves but sometimes to other things. For example, it has been suggested for many years that if you are parasitised with helminths, you won’t get so allergic. There is now real evidence that that is the case. The parasite subverts the immune response not just to itself but to other things. These are very cunning infections because they rarely kill people or animals — unless you have too big an infection. And previous generations of humans, up until very recently, were parasitised like this. Humans free of parasites, as we are, are historical accidents. So it is not surprising that parasites have the capacity to subvert.

There is a parallel with the hookworm story, which we have been dealing with quite often in recent times on radio programs. People have actually taken hookworms, infected themselves and, having done that, find their own diseases are reduced. In fact, sometimes their diseases just disappear. Isn’t it amazing?

But that shows you how insidious they are and how dangerous they are in people in marginal economies. If you’re infected, you don’t feel well, you find it more difficult to work and you find it more difficult to do anything. They are incredibly subtle dangers to the human race, but they don’t often kill.

Teacher and preacher at The Wellcome Trust

In a way, this is the first third, the first chapter of your life. Then how did things come to change?

I really loved being a research scientist and it was so much easier in those days — ‘organised play for adults’ — but I got a bit restless in the seventies. Quite frankly, the leadership in my division at Mill Hill was very poor.

That was after Medawar?

Yes. The head of the institute, Arnold Burgen, was very supportive of me, but the immediate divisional head was very poor. Without going into any details, I got terribly restless. I met the then director of the Wellcome Trust at a meeting at the wonderful Rockefeller owned villa, the Villa Serbelloni, on Lake Como in Italy. It was a meeting which I was chairing. He recognised that I was restless and also he shrewdly knew (a) that I wouldn’t be interested in an administrative post and (b) I certainly wasn’t ready to leave science in the hands-on research sense at that time. So he invited me to come on a sabbatical to run his tropical medicine program and I thought, ‘Why not?’ So I did this on a half-time basis initially for a year, running my lab. In the other half of my time, and I enjoyed it so much that eventually I changed. I had got to the point in my career when it’s not so much doing things yourself that is so interesting but seeing others being turned on. It is the teacher and preacher in us, I guess.

Facilitating other people.

Yes, that’s right. When you go to a funding organisation such as the Wellcome Trust, you can do that in spades. I realised that is what I could do and that is really why I changed.

Sleeping sickness, malaria — what was involved?

The Wellcome Trust has always had a major focus on diseases of the tropics which continues. My first job was to run its tropical program and there were six units. One was on the Amazon at Belem, working on Leishmania species and led by the wonderful Ralph Lainson. There was a group in Jamaica working on nutrition. There was the group out in Kenya, who had been working on schistosomes and then they changed to malaria. There was also what eventually became Nick White’s group, in Thailand and Vietnam. In addition, there was a group working on diarrhoea in South India. So I had a wonderful time running around, managing these groups and protecting them from some of the trustees.

Ralph Lainson is a wonderful guy. He has spent his whole life in Belem pursuing Leishmania — he is still there. One of the trustees, Bill Paton, was a professor of physiology at Oxford. When he was reading Ralph Lainson’s report one year I remember him saying, ‘What’s this Lainson doing working on all these obscure parasites and not just on Leishmania?’ Ralph is a real naturalist, so he would work on parasites of crocodiles, lizards, birds and all the rest of it. I said to Ralph, ‘Ralph, just don’t tell us about these, because it is not necessary. You’re doing more than enough on leishmaniasis for us, anyway.’ I knew very well that trying to stop Ralph from pursuing any parasite he thought interesting would be like trying to stop the sun coming up. He eventually became a fellow of the Royal Society mainly for his work on non-Leishmania parasites. He was supported on an annual basis by the Wellcome Trust for 40 years to do this.

Were those various programs successful as you were working with them?

Certainly Ralph’s was very successful. He is renowned. He is regarded as a treasure by the Wellcome Trust. I know, in this the Wellcome Trust’s 75th anniversary year, he features high on their list of important people who they have supported. The group in Thailand, Nick White’s group, are certainly very successful and Nick is also on this Wellcome Trust list of very successful grant holders. They were working on the pathophysiology of malaria initially but since then on many other infections. The group now in Kenya also working on malaria, certainly. The one in South India and the one in Jamaica, we closed down during my time at the Wellcome Trust.

But how do you measure success in fighting malaria? It is still a killer and it is responsible for any number of millions of deaths per annum. So ‘success’ meaning what?

Well, Nick White and David Warrell before him were the ones who showed very clearly the rapid decline in the efficiency of the available drugs, chloroquines particularly. They did clinical studies by looking at a lot of people infected with malaria and looking at the outcomes. Then Nick heard about this drug that the Chinese had discovered, artemisinin derived from the plant Artemesia annua, which still works, and is now the main drug for malaria. So that has been a seminal unit. There is no question that the Wellcome Trust investment in those things has been very successful and I know that the present director has expanded that program quite considerably. The overseas program, not necessarily the units.

Just thinking globally, only the other day Bill Gates was saying that, with all those millions of people dying of malaria, nonetheless the amount that is spent on malaria in terms of research is barely a fraction of that which goes on some aspect of cosmetic surgery, for example.

Absolutely. Of course, Wellcome was one of the ones that soldiered on supporting work on malaria through it all. Then one of the things that I have done subsequently was to be the founding chairman of the Medicines for Malaria Venture. This has been very successful in getting properly developed artemisinin antimalarials on the market. The ones from China were not accepted because they hadn’t gone through the development process which is accepted in the West. You really can’t put drugs into other countries that are not made in the way that is suitable for dealing with you and me. That was something that I really enjoyed doing very much.

Wellcome investments

Eventually you got the top position in the Wellcome Trust and eventually you had about £600 million to invest annually in research.

That is the figure now. When I went to Wellcome in 1981 or thereabouts, the annual spend was about £12 million. The Wellcome Company was then still wholly owned by the Wellcome Trust. The founder left everything to his trustees when he died in 1936, and hence the Wellcome Trust. They hadn’t had a new drug for a very long time, so the dividend, which is what the Wellcome Trust received, was very low. Then they invented the first really successful antiviral drug, acyclovir, a guanosine analogue, which deals with herpes, cold sores and that sort of thing, and that was put on the market in about 1983. Then eventually they developed the first anti-AIDS drug, zidovudine or azidothymidine (AZT), an analogue of thymidine, which was put on the market in 1987.

It was when these drugs were discovered that the then trustees decided that they should diversify their asset base. As a UK charity they would never be allowed nowadays to have all their assets in a single basket. So they went to the courts and got permission to do that. They were greatly helped because of the precedent of the Nuffield Foundation. They had had all its assets in a single company, British Leyland or its subsequent names, and lost most of its assets when this company collapsed. The chairman of the Nuffield at the time of this disaster was one Sir Anthony Gibbs — the father of Roger Gibbs, who was the Chairman of the Wellcome Trust during my time as its Director. Sir Anthony couldn’t persuade his fellow trustees to diversify their asset base. So this was a fantastic precedent for the Wellcome Trust, and the courts gladly gave their permission to sell.

Were you involved in that freeing up of the money so that they could invest?

No. That was done by two chairmen of the Wellcome Trust, namely Sir David Steel, who had been at BP, and Roger Gibbs, who Sir David got in to succeed him. Sir David got Roger in as a trustee, then chair, specifically to sell off the company. Sir David knew that Roger was very good at that sort of thing.

As the money grew, you ended up having virtually as much as the British government to invest in medical research. How do you feel about that?

One of the really important things was that we had been in the business of giving grants for 40 years. Unlike the Gates Foundation when it started, we were not novices at the business of funding. It was about expanding something that we already knew how to do. When you suddenly get lashings of money, which we did, you don’t do the usual things. It was just a mind-blowing experience, actually, between the first sale in 1986 and the final sale in 1995. You don’t do the usual things because you can’t sensibly suddenly increase the amount of money for individuals. So that is when we did a lot about infrastructure— buildings, equipment and all that kind of thing.

The Sanger Centre

In 1992, not long after I had become the Trust’s Director, along came Aaron Klug and Dai Rees from the MRC. Dai was the head of the Medical Research Council and Aaron was the head of the MRC’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. They said that they were afraid they would be losing John Sulston, who was just about to finish his genome sequencing of the free-living nematode Caenorhabditis. They didn’t want to lose him to America, where they were trying to get him to sequence the human genome. Dai and Aaron asked whether we would be prepared to put some of our enormous largess together with funds from the UK Medical Research Council to keep him. The figure that they mentioned then was about £2 million. We very quickly agreed to do this and we put John and his group in an old laboratory previously owned by Tube Investments at Hinxton near Cambridge. That is where the Sanger Institute now is. We then set about building that enormous campus at vastly greater expense!

The Sanger Centre named after Fred Sanger, the only person alive today who has two Nobel Prizes. What is he actually like?

One of the important things about Fred is that he came from a Quaker background. That gives people a certain persona and they very rarely go in for being a big public figure. Fred was a scientist’s scientist, if ever there was one. He refused knighthoods, as a lot of creative people of that generation did, and I know that he was offered a knighthood twice. When we wanted to name this building after him, we asked him what he wanted to have on the plaque. He didn’t want his Companion of Honour, Order of Merit, two Nobel Prizes or any other of his many honours on this plaque. He just said it should read, ‘This laboratory was opened by Fred Sanger’. And he was really thrilled because they gave him a key so that he could come into the laboratory at any time

Amazing. The Sanger Centre is famous for gene research, but what sorts of genes?

It was set up to begin to sequence the human genome. In the end, it sequenced a third of the human genome and since then the genomes of many pathogens. Especially those genomes of important but neglected organisms, in which commercial enterprises have no interest, e.g. malaria or trypanosomes. John Sulston, like many of his generation, is very left-wing. So he insisted that there was no question of the human genome being privatised. The Americans, led by Francis Collins, said — referring to the Wellcome Trust — ‘When you see an 800-pound gorilla coming over the horizon, you take note of what they have to say’. The Americans were astounded to find this UK-based charity with suddenly so much money. So it had a big influence. It was amazing, watching the whole experience.

Then along came Craig Venter, that brilliant, highly commercially minded guy. If you set out to find two more disparate people than Craig Venter and John Sulston — well, you couldn’t choose more different people. Craig became this big competitor. I remember seeing the governors, formerly trustees, of the Wellcome Trust gritting their jaws and thinking to themselves, ‘We’re not going to allow this guy to beat us’, and giving John lashings of additional cash. John Sulston never understood that it was the competition that gave him so much money so quickly. It was extraordinary.

John Sulston wasn’t converted to the free market cowboy stuff of Craig Venter?

No. We put him in charge of this big enterprise and, after a while, I suddenly thought, ‘What are we paying this guy?’ But he hadn’t even asked. He was uninterested.

He hadn’t asked for money for himself?

No, he hadn’t discussed his salary with us at all. There was a film about him, at about the time he was knighted. You can see in it he is still living in the same house he bought when he was a postdoc and still grinding his coffee in the old hand-grinding machine. He is that kind of guy.

User-pays science?

What do you think about the whole idea of science for the public good so that you give it away free? Do you think that’s an old-fashioned concept?

I spent nine years on the board of AstraZeneca and the truth of the matter is that, if ideas are not patented, certainly in the pharmaceutical context, they can’t be developed. You have got to have control of the intellectual property in order to make some money out of it. Now that drug development costs so much that is the way of the world. In certain contexts, you must patent in order to protect things. Not necessarily to make money, but in order to protect them so that others who have the expertise to develop them into treatments or drugs can do so. One always has to be aware of that. But we have all become so risk averse and expect drugs to have no side effects, an impossible dream. It is so damaging because of this attitude, it has become almost impossible to develop new drugs and it now costs over $1 billion to produce one.

There is another example, not with drugs, but with the World Wide Web. 20 years ago, Sir ‘Tim’ Berners-Lee, a Fellow of the Royal Society, decided that he was going to give this astounding invention free for the public good. Amazing, isn’t it?

I have given one example of when it is necessary to patent things. But certainly, and for most of my scientific career, we did research for the public good. The attitude at the CSIRO, was the same at that time, until about the mid­-seventies. I think the change was partly because research has become so expensive. After all, the majority of science is done at the expense of our fellow taxpayers and you have to get a return. The turning point in the UK was about the time when Cesar Milstein developed monoclonal antibodies. There was all that fuss around the failure to patent that discovery, which is historically well documented. Biological science had become sufficiently powerful and sufficiently precise for there to be much less of a gap between finding a new idea and doing something useful with it. I think that was the turning point: cost and the advances of science.

As for my views on this issue, it would be great if we could just hand everything over for the public good. But, unfortunately, partly because of my experience with AstraZeneca, I realise that it is not always sensible.

The public’s (mis)understanding of science

Was that at about the same time that you took on the role in COPUS, the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science?

They asked me to be Chairman of COPUS as I was leaving the Wellcome Trust. I was very happy to do it because Wellcome has always had a major interest in this. It wasn’t why I joined the staff of the Wellcome Trust. When I first joined them, all that side of the business was managed by the company. That is the old Wellcome Museum, which was posters on walls, mainly about tropical infections, and the collection of books and manuscripts. It was only after the first sale of the shares that the Trust took over that responsibility. The Trust has developed these interests mightily ever since.

However, because of my background and being interested in the application of science, I was always interested in this and I liked to talk about it. If you have an agricultural or medical background, there is always something that will interest the public. So I was naturally inclined that way. I was happy to take over the chairmanship of COPUS. But I quickly realised that it had become a non-functional body. It was theoretically a joint enterprise between the then British Association for the Advancement of Science, now the British Science Association, the Royal Institution and the Royal Society but it was actually completely controlled by the Royal Society. They ignored the fact that Wellcome was putting far more money into this area than anyone else. And that all scientific bodies in the UK were getting more and more active in this area. This was partly because of the major scientifically based tragedies we had had, such as BSE, so everyone realised that new approaches were needed. In the end, I just got fed up with it and resigned very publicly, saying, ‘This body is non-functional. I’m no longer prepared to be its chair.’

Why couldn’t you make it work?

The Royal Society continually blocked me. I tried for about three years.

Why did they block you?

They wanted to control it completely, they didn’t want any change, they didn’t want to make it an inclusive body and they were ignoring what was happening all around the country. I thought it was pointless, I had other things to do and I have never been involved in things just to be a figurehead.

Isn’t it a pity that there are still scientific organisations around operating as though it’s the 19th Century, with men in brown suits?

I know. It is extraordinary. But then most scientists are highly focused on what they do, which is necessary to be successful. To be a good research scientist, you have to really focus. I loved that for a while, when I was in the business of hands-on research. But then I got bored with it. I wanted to broaden my interests. One of the reasons that I was happy at the Wellcome Trust is that you have to take a helicopter view, just as you, as an interviewer, have to take a helicopter view of science. Lots of scientists will always be hopeless at communicating, but many scientists are brilliant communicators. I have never accepted the mantra that all scientists are lousy communicators. That is not the case. But what we needed was help in dealing with issues.

Recent changes have revolutionised scientific communication here in the UK. First of all, when organisations like the Royal Society or the Academy of Medical Sciences make a considered report on some new development in science, they also do a survey of public opinions and incorporate the results of that into their report. The surveys are done by people who are good at doing public opinion surveys. The pioneering one was the nanotechnology report by the Royal Society chaired by Anne Dowling. And there is a recent one from the Academy of Medical Sciences on bits of humans in animals, where they did a survey of public attitudes, incorporated that into the report and worked out ways of dealing with these attitudes. That has been a big change very much for the better.

The other really big change was the development of the Science Media Centre under Fiona Fox. She calls it ‘supporting scientists when science is in the news’. The third organisation, which I am the vice chairman of, is Sense About Science. It deals with the real public. Most of the real public would never dream of contacting a body like the Royal Society or the Australian Academy of Science about scientific matters, but Sense about Science gets inundated with requests from the real public. For example, ‘Is there something in the plastic used to make bottles for babies that is dangerous to babies? Is that really a worry? Are the claims of practitioners of homeopathy reliable?’ In dealing with questions of this sort from the public, Sense about Science has been a brilliant success. Tracey Brown, who runs it, is a campaigning sociologist who likes science and supports scientists. It has really been a success.

What do you think about the problem where there is a gap between what science knows about things like vaccinations and genetically modified crops, and this incredible public prejudice that still exists?

Vaccines have always been controversial. If you go back to the first development of vaccines for smallpox, the cartoonists of the day did all these little cartoons of cows coming out of people’s arms. Vaccines have always been controversial and I think the reason for that is because you are putting a ‘medicine’ into somebody who is well. You are not treating them, you are stopping them from getting ill. Over the years there have been ups and downs in attitudes to vaccines, and that is understandable. But when it was said that the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (the MMR vaccine), was causing autism in vaccinated children, it was a tragedy. So many children have since not been vaccinated. Some children have been damaged by getting measles and a lot of boys will have been rendered infertile by not having a mumps vaccine.

Even nowadays in northern New South Wales, where my daughter lives, people have all sorts of hippie ideas about ‘complementary medicine.’ They won’t have vaccinations. The result is that you get any number of kids getting diseases which they shouldn’t have and infecting the others.

Subjective vs relative arguments

What has happened is that the Age of Enlightenment has been dimmed, shall we say. It may be the end of the age of reason and evidence, which had caused the flowering of science. About 40 per cent of the American population believe in homoeopathy, intelligent design and thinking that any opinion has equal weight to any other. We have had a profound change in attitudes in countries like the US and there is quite a lot of it here in the UK and I am sure there is plenty of it in Australia as well. So the age of enlightenment, if not dead, is greatly dimmed. If you have that, then you really are in trouble academically.

When I was still the High Steward of Cambridge University, I sat on a little committee with the then vice-chancellor, Alison Richard. It looked at the salaries of the non-clinical professors. They reassessed all the salaries of the academic staff and I noticed in the top category there were very few non-scientists. As a scientist, I felt I should speak up on behalf of my non-science friends and I asked why there were so few. Alison Richard said, ‘I’m afraid that our arts and humanities people have drunk too deeply of the well of this attitude and we have to wait for a generation to pass before we can get them up to speed again’.

What was the gap? How big was the gap?

In the Cambridge professoriate there are about 420 non-clinical professors. In the top category of these, they only had 15 people — you practically had to have a Nobel Prize to get into that category. There were, I think, three non-scientists in the top category.

Isn’t that astounding?

Apparently this is universal across Britain and I assume that it is the same in Australia.

You would have thought Britain, with its tradition, would be exemplary, and that there would be far more.

You know all this nonsense that has gone on about ‘anything you say is of equal validity to anybody else’. There has been a total change.

‘Relativism’ it is called — ‘You are right to speak out on anything you like.’

And it has the same validity as a reasoned view. That is why it is so difficult to deal with. But the interesting thing is that we haven’t had one of these dire feeding media frenzies about scientific matters recently in the UK. I had, shall we say, the ‘ill fortune’ to be chairman of the governing body of the Institute of Animal Health at the height of the troubles with BSE, CJD and then foot-and-mouth. Then I was on the board of AstraZeneca when we had Monsanto making fools of themselves over GM of plants. So unfortunately I have seen so much of that stuff at first hand. What went on in the media was really shocking.

Scientists with security guards and new technologies

You probably know Colin Blakemore. He was attacked. There were death threats against him and his family, which is astounding. When he was President of the British Science Festival he gave his presidential address on stage with two SAS bodyguards. It was extraordinary. He had an electronic iron gate in Oxford to protect his house.

Yes. I understand they are having something similar in Australia with people who are working on climate change.

Yes. In fact, the Australian Academy of Science has made a public statement condemning this sort of death threat. Are you involved these days in the public understanding of science in any way or taking a public role?

Not really. When I became Director of the Wellcome Trust, the trustees made me undergo an assessment by a former policeman. He had been in charge of British embassies abroad. He told me that I should live on the fourth floor of a multistorey block, with an exit and entrance and all the rest of it. I live in a multi-occupied house — a Victorian villa converted into flats. After he had told me all this, I looked him in the eye and I said, ‘You’ve said your piece. But I’m not moving from here.’ And stay I have.

Just a thought about the Wellcome again, with the museum and the exhibitions, I remember not too long ago there was a display in the medical part of a young woman’s heart. It had been taken out when she had a transplant and she was able to visit the Wellcome and see her own heart on display. It is startling what you can do these days, isn’t it?

It really is startling. People don’t realise how many heart transplants there have been now. There are lots and lots of people who are going around with a new heart. It is amazing — revolutionary. We are bionic men and women.

That is right. The new technology is allowing all these things to happen. Do you keep up with the new technology yourself?

Personally I do, as I have just got new knees. Is that keeping up?

I actually meant communication devices, but knees are fine. What are your knees made of?

Oh, some sort of metal. They clink when I go through the security at the airport.

But they’re working well?

Yes, I’ve been very lucky.

There’s no place like home

When you do go back to the airport, one of your destinations is back in Australia. You spend something like three or four months a year back home. Why?

I have been here a long time and I have never enjoyed the British winter — those dark days. It’s not the cold and, when you are working, it doesn’t really matter much. But, once I had retired, I thought, ‘I don’t have to be here for the winter’. So my brother and I got together and built a house at Austinmer, near Wollongong. The family use it as a beach house and I go there for the summers.

Do you have any relationship with the University of Wollongong, just down the road?

The remarkable Margaret Sheil was the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and she quickly got to know me. I chair a couple of their advisory groups, one to the new medical school there and the other to the group headed by Gordon Wallace working on materials. I know nothing about materials — other members of the advisory board do. But I know a lot about universities and how they function and about how funding bodies function. That is really what I do for them.

The University of Wollongong is really doing well, isn’t it?

Yes. It has been very well led since it was established as a ‘college of technology’ and it is very interesting. They have a big reputation for teaching. I remember asking the vice-chancellor how this happened and he said, ‘When this place was established, all the students had English as a second language, so we had to get good at teaching.’ So that is how they have preserved that.

It was university of the year several times. The University of Wollongong is about to get a new Vice-Chancellor, Paul Wellings, who used to be in CSIRO. Do you think science can contribute to the rejuvenation of an area like that, changing the culture of science and technology?

Yes. Wollongong is a very deprived area in terms of unemployment and it is a very diverse population in terms of background. They are mainly from the Mediterranean region, which makes it very interesting. The people I have got to know there are a really interesting crew. Austinmer is a hot bed of musicians, artists and things like that. So the university is in a strong position to take leadership, as it has been doing for some time.

The Academy, the Royal Society and women

Do you have any chance of taking an active role in the Australian Academy of Science, when you are there?

No. I would love to come to many of the lectures that they are having now. They are really terrific, and I think, ‘I wish I could whip out for this one’. But I can’t, unfortunately. I am not there enough.

A bit of a tricky question: the Australian Academy of Science now has its first female elected president, Suzanne Cory. There was a previous female president, Dorothy Hill, but she wasn’t elected. She stepped in when there was a breach. But there now have been two women as presidents of the Australian Academy of Science. The Royal Society in 350 years has had no woman as president. What is your opinion of that lapse?

Not as president. Anne McLaren was the first female honorary officer, when she was foreign secretary. And they have had quite a lot since. But, no, they haven’t had a president yet.

Why not? What’s the blockage?

Science is very difficult for women because it is so aggressively competitive. That is the bottom line. I neither married nor had children — isn’t it strange that you have to say both these days. But I hugely admire women who succeed in science, despite having major family commitments. In my view things have changed a lot for the better.

I was out in Australia on a sabbatical with what was the CSIRO Division of Animal Health in 1971–72.There was a big peak in female activists at that time. They went to see the Chairman of CSIRO because, at that time, there was only one woman on the scientific staff of CSIRO. They said to this chairman, ‘How come there are no women at any level of seniority in the scientific staff of your organisation?’ This guy huffed and puffed and finally blurted out, ‘It’s not that we’re prejudiced against women. It’s just that we always choose the best chap for the job.’

The head of the Division then was one Alan Pearce. He had known me as a PhD student when he was at the Babraham laboratory near Cambridge, before he went on to head the division. I had this fellowship to work in his three labs — Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. I had a whale of a time running about and getting all these men to work hard on my project. Then one of the lab heads was retiring, so they had a little internal search committee and they asked me to go and talk to them. I thought it was because they knew I knew everybody. So I went into this room and there were all these men who knew me well and I knew them well and had for years. And they were all wriggling about like eight-year-old schoolboys. I thought, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ Finally, one of them blurted out, ‘We just wanted you to know that, if you were a man, we’d be recommending you for the job.’ As I took in this stunning remark, I realised that they were actually paying me a great compliment. They knew that I understood that, if they had recommended a woman, they would have been completely ignored. But times have changed.

The chief executive of CSIRO now is a woman. They have had a female chair too. So there have been big changes in the Public Service, particularly in Australia but everywhere else too. But it is always going to be very difficult for women because of the ferocious competitiveness of science. Some women achieve it. They usually have the same characteristics: they are very tough physically and very tough mentally and they have huge support from their partner. But, even so, they always have periods when their science is down a bit — this is inevitable.

Brushes with fame

I want to ask you a final question about meeting people – famous people. How did you get on with Margaret Thatcher?

I only met her after she retired. It was when the University of Buckingham, of which she was then the Chancellor, gave me an honorary degree. I will never forget this because it was on a beautiful sunny February day at the University of Buckingham. It is the only private university in this country. The then vice-chancellor was Sir Richard Luce, and he and his wife were the most charming hosts that I have ever come across. He subsequently went on to become Governor of Gibraltar and the head of the Queen’s household as a Lord. I wasn’t surprised, because of the skill those two had as hosts. Margaret Thatcher was there and she always stayed with them. She was very skilful at flitting about. If you asked her an awkward question, she would immediately pick up a dirty plate and move on. I had a suit with nice buttons on it and she admired them, ‘Oh, what lovely buttons,’ she said.

Instead of answering the question.

Yes, that’s right. Then she wouldn’t wear the floppy Tudor hat that went with her chancellor’s outfit. It messed up her hair. So I didn’t have to wear mine either! I hate wearing those hats. So we had an entertaining time. Her husband Denis was there too. One of my guests was a former businessman and he and Denis were getting on like a house on fire. You would notice Richard Luce slipping the gins into Denis’ hand all through the lunch. It was a fabulous day, one of the most entertaining times I have had. But that was the only time I met her.

Bridget Ogilvie, it has been a great pleasure. Thank you for talking in this interview for the Australian Academy of Science.

Robyn, it is a pleasure. We have met before and you have interviewed me before, so it is very nice to see you again.

Thank you.

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