EVEN FOR those of us who would like to suppose that we are unembarrassable, there are some faux pas that make us blush, albeit that three and a half decades have passed by.
On the occasion, in the spring of 1964, of a two-way traffic in ideas at Glasgow University between scientists and Labour politicians preparing for the white heat of the technological revolution, I saw Guido Pontecorvo among our guests. I introduced him to the Shadow Science Secretary of State R.H.S. Crossman: "Dick, my friend here is Guido Pontecorvo, a truly distinguished professor of genetics in this university." Sensitive to Crossman's quizzical glance on hearing the name Pontecorvo, I stuttered "and brother of Bruno Pontecorvo, the well-known physicist". The small man with twinkling, piercing eyes suddenly became cold and hostile. "The last was unnecessary," and he added witheringly "I am not, you know, my brother's keeper."
I could have sunk under the floorboards at that moment. Only the intercession of a mutual friend saved the relationship. For the next 35 years I never uttered anything to Guido remotely concerned with his brother Bruno, the controversial atom spy who defected to the Soviet Union.
However, a few weeks ago, when I was asked to intercede with the Home Office ministers on behalf of Bruno's son Gil, living in Italy, on the matter of a visa to come to Britain, I rang Guido for a contact number. It was the second time in 35 years that I had a cryogenic response from him. The truth is that he thought that the good name of the Pontecorvos of Pisa had been sullied by the actions of Bruno.
Guido Pontecorvo was one of the founders of modern genetics. In 1945 he was a founder member of the Department of Genetics at Glasgow University, and from 1955 until 1968 was Professor of Genetics. Since 1995 the university's Genetics Institute has been housed in the Pontecorvo Building, named in his honour.
His work at Glasgow on fungi, particularly on the soil fungus aspergillus, is of lasting importance. Sir David Hopwood, John Innes Professor of Genetics at the University of East Anglia, told me yesterday: "Ponte pioneered the use of microbial genetics to reveal the internal architecture of genes, and thus foreshadowed our detailed understanding of gene structure and function. His discovery of gene reassortment in fungi without the need of a sexual cycle led to the genetics of human cells in culture, a key step towards mapping the human genome."
Pontecorvo was born in 1907, the eldest of the seven children of Massimo and Maria Pontecorvo, prosperous members of the Jewish community in Pisa. One of his brothers, Gillo, became an internationally known film director. Guido used to recount how it was his task as the eldest brother to go and boil the water for the midwife whenever a new child arrived in the family.
He went to school in Pisa and then on to the university where he took a degree in agriculture in 1928. His first job was in the Agricultural Inspectorate for the province of Tuscany 1931-38, based in Florence.
In 1938 Mussolini was making life somewhat precarious for members of the Jewish community so Pontecorvo took the opportunity to come to the Department of Animal Genetics in Edinburgh, attracted by the growing fame of its director Professor Hermann Muller and the then young Professor C.H. Waddington. When, along with other members of the Edinburgh Italian community, "mostly excellent restaurateurs" as Pontecorvo laughingly put it, he was sent by sea to Canada, he was one of the survivors when the ship was sunk in the Atlantic by a German torpedo. …