Focus: Science: Inside the Nobel Prize Factory ; Yet Again the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge Has Won the Highest Accolade. Steve Connor Visits an Institution Whose Uniquely Inspiring Atmosphere Has Given the World an Unprecedented Twelve Laureates

By Connor, Steve | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), October 13, 2002 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Focus: Science: Inside the Nobel Prize Factory ; Yet Again the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge Has Won the Highest Accolade. Steve Connor Visits an Institution Whose Uniquely Inspiring Atmosphere Has Given the World an Unprecedented Twelve Laureates


Connor, Steve, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


Standing outside the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge there is little indication that this unattractive block of bricks houses the most successful research centre in Britain - if not the world - in terms of Nobel prizes.

It is a typical example of Sixties neo-brutalist architecture, with a 21st-century afterthought jutting rather incongruously from the front porch like a crab on stilts. Visitors and patients at the nearby Addenbrooke's Hospital could be forgiven for walking past the LMB without realising that this rather nondescript suite of laboratories can now lay claim to at least 13 Nobels, including the three picked up last week by its former researchers Sydney Brenner, Sir John Sulston and Robert Horvitz.

The typical paraphernalia of science litters the corridors of the LMB. Freezers, cabinets, centrifuge machines and other "white goods" of the modern research unit are stacked along the walls to exploit every scrap of space. The overcrowded and messy laboratories opening off each corridor are no different to those you would expect to see in universities anywhere in the world. Walking into these scientific workshops, there is again nothing that explains why this laboratory, of all those in Britain, should be so successful in winning the most coveted prize in science.

It is only when you talk to the scientists themselves that something special begins to emerge. They talk about not having to suffer the bureaucracy that dogs their university colleagues; the sense of community spirit and co-operation within the lab; and the freedom they have been given to chase their dreams of discovery. Above all, they talk about the "LMB culture" - something that everyone appears to be aware of, but few can define precisely.

Nevertheless, it is this culture that has fostered perhaps the most successful research operation in biology. Some have likened the place to a Nobel- prize factory, churning out world-beating discoveries almost to order. But that is not an analogy that draws favour with Sir Aaron Klug, one of the LMB's former directors and himself a Nobel laureate. "In a factory you know what you're going to make. Here we plant things that grow and mature. It takes a long time," he says.

If there is any single element that typifies the LMB culture it is the time that its scientists are given to study a problem. It is said that Fred Sanger, one of the few scientists to win two Nobels, went through a fallow patch lasting many years before he hit his second rich vein of discovery. Equally, John Walker, who won a Nobel for his research on the energy molecules of the cell, would not have solved the problem if he had had to rely on short-term grants.

Right from the outset, the ethos of those who created the LMB was to give scientists the time and the freedom - in other words, the money - to do what they wanted. Unlike so many others elsewhere, Francis Crick and Jim Watson, the laboratory's two most famous Nobel laureates, were never asked to fill in performance charts or accountability forms in the run-up to their discovery of the DNA double helix.

The origins of the laboratory stem from a meeting in 1947 at the Athenaeum, the London club, of Sir Edward Mellanby, the formidable head of the Medical Research Council at the time, and the physicist Sir Lawrence Bragg who wanted a new unit to study the molecular structure of living things. As they lunched, Mellanby agreed to set aside money to fund a laboratory with John Kendrew and Max Perutz as its founding members. The pair went on to win joint Nobel prizes for their work on the structure of proteins.

Perutz, who died this year, stamped his personality on the new research centre. "Experience had taught me that laboratories often fail because their scientists never talk to each other," he wrote in 1996. He set up a lab canteen managed by his wife, Gisela, to stimulate the exchange of ideas on a daily basis.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Focus: Science: Inside the Nobel Prize Factory ; Yet Again the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge Has Won the Highest Accolade. Steve Connor Visits an Institution Whose Uniquely Inspiring Atmosphere Has Given the World an Unprecedented Twelve Laureates
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?