Fred Sanger died

November 20, 2013 • 10:01 am

According to the BBC News, Fred Sanger (I never heard anyone call him “Frederick”) died yesterday at age 95. He was the only English person to ever win two Nobel Prizes. These were both in chemistry. One, given in 1958 (and to Sanger alone), was for determining the amino acid sequence of insulin from cows, dispelling a common idea that proteins did not have a definite and repeatable sequence. The method, involving paper chromatography, was laborious.

The second prize was for a unique method of DNA sequencing (the so-called “Sanger sequencing”) that he published with in 1977 with Alan Coulson and S. Nicklen in the Proceeding of the National Academies of Science (click the link to see a paper that nabbed a Nobel).  Sanger, Wally Gilbert (who developed another method of sequencing DNA) and Paul Berg (who worked on the chemistry of nucleic acids) shared the chemistry Nobel in 1980.

Wikipedia gives a few interesting tidbits about the man:

He has lost his religious faith and calls himself an agnostic. In an interview published in the Times newspaper in 2000 Sanger is quoted as saying: “My father was a committed Quaker and I was brought up as a Quaker, and for them truth is very important. I drifted away from those beliefs – one is obviously looking for truth but one needs some evidence for it. Even if I wanted to believe in God I would find it very difficult. I would need to see proof.”

Ah, the old “lack of evidence” statement that turns so many scientists into nonbelievers.

Also, when reading his obituary I didn’t see any reference to “Sir Frederick Sanger,” and don’t ever remember him being called “Sir Fred.” That’s because of this:

He declined the offer of a knighthood as he did not wish to be addressed as “Sir” but later accepted the award of an Order of Merit.

Sanger was one of the good guys, known for his lack of cant and arrogance.

By the way, can you name the other three people who won the Nobel Prize twice? I’m sure you’ll know at least one, but think before you look up the answer (here).

Fred Sanger (1918-2013)

24 thoughts on “Fred Sanger died

  1. Reminds me of another great Nobelist – Medawar –
    “I cannot give any scientist of any age better advice than this: the intensity of a conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing on whether it is true or not. The importance of the strength of our conviction is only to provide a proportionately strong incentive to find out if the hypothesis will stand up to critical evaluation.”
    (from The Question of the Existence of God in The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice and Other Classic Essays on Science)

      1. Pauling won one in chemistry and one for peace. Sanger is the only one to win two in chemistry. Marie Curie was the first person to win two Nobels in science – the first in physics with Pierre the second one her own in chemistry. John Bardeen won two in physics, both shared with two other physicists. Are there other double winners – off hand, I don’t know.

        1. Oops – sorry, I didn’t see the question in your post Jerry (with the link to the answer). Feel free to delete my spoiler.

    1. Pauling was a great chemist and he deserves the peace price as well as it was largely unblemished back in his day. However, like Dawkins, I believe the Peace Prize has degenerated in recent decades and, for the most part, though not always, future winners (of the Peace Prize) should be annotated as winning a Nobel PEACE Prize rather than a Nobel Prize. They no longer mean the same thing.

      1. I blame the norwegians, they may rule in chess (any day now) but they don’t know the bottom from the top of the flask… =D

        Nobel Prizes are a fragmented lot. Having Norway giving out a prize after the forced union with Sweden split peacefully was good politics at the time. But confusing now.

    1. Bother – I knew two of them! This sort of Nobel will never happen again will it – I mean all research is so multi-faceted & specialised, with teams of people working on narrow areas of research…?

    2. I knew the same two as you – but I didn’t realize until I saw on the Beeb that Sanger had two; so really I’m two of four

  2. Ok, I only got Curie. But I know a good challenge myself: Who was the only person to win both a Nobel prize and an Oscar?

    1. Assuming that the earliest Nobels were presented to the winners in the same manner that they are now, those early winners (probably thru 1906), were handed their medals by an Oscar (II).

  3. I’m sorry to hear of Sanger’s death. I never met him, but while visiting a professor friend at Cambridge University, he told me a funny story about him:

    Apparently Sanger was a modest person, who you wouldn’t think had won a Nobel Prize. A friend of his had a visitor who was going on at length about having recently been on tv. Trying to keep the conversation going, Sanger casually mentioned that he had also been on tv. The visitor arrogantly responded:
    “Oh yes, do tell us about the time YOU were on tv!”
    To which Sanger replied, “Well it was just after winning my second Nobel Prize…”
    The visitor shut up, and later asked his friend, “Why didn’t you tell me??!!…”

  4. I missed John Bardeen, but got the others (kicking myself because once I saw his name, I knew what he had received them for).

    One of my favorite Nobel trivia questions: What family (this part is easy) has won the most Nobels? Name them (this is the hard part). There are 6 total prizes for this family.

    1. The Curies. Pierre and Marie Curie, there daughter Irene-Joliot (I had to look up the full name) and her husband (for some reason I thought it was their son and not son-in-law who won it).

      In any case, I didn’t know that their grand-daughter also won it as part of UNICEF.

  5. Sanger’s determinaton of the structure of insulin was a tour-de-force since use of Sanger’s reagent (dinitrofluorobenzene) to identify the N-terminal amino acid of a peptide requires hydrolytic destruction of the rest of the peptide. A large number of fragments both from enzymatic cleavage and limited acid cleavage had to be generated along with much deduction from amino acid compositions in order to solve the structure. Because of this, protein sequence determination of larger proteins vs. peptides like insulin and using Sanger’s methodology was enormously impractical/virtually impossible, and it took the progressive, sequential methodology using phenylisothiocyanate developed by Per Edman to bring protein sequencing to the next level. And for sequencing proteins at the protein level by direct chemical analysis of the products this is the methodology still used today (albeit now largely supplanted by mass spectrometry).

    So, especially given that Nobels were awarded for multiple methods of DNA sequencing, it has always seemed to me unfair that Edman never won a Nobel. But, as related to me some 20yrs ago by a well-known mass spectrometrist and professor at Karolinska Institute who knew Edman (and who, while retired, is still engaged there at just over 90 now), it probably didn’t help Edman’s case that he was married to the sister of Sune Bergström (future Nobel laureate himself and who was then secretary of the Nobel Committee), since Edman ran off with his lab tech. In telling this story, the professor added, smiling in a way people smile when they remember pleasant memories, “…and she looked just like Veronica Lake.”

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