University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

A Nobel Gesture

Dr. Oliver Smithies has created a visiting lectureship to inspire students

Dr. Oliver Smithies, one of three scientists who won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Medicine, is giving a quarter of his award money to U of T to create a visiting lectureship. Three other universities are getting equal shares of the funds.

Smithies attended Oxford University in England, but landed his first job with Toronto’s Connaught Laboratories, an affiliate of the University of Toronto, in 1953. Connaught produced insulin, and Smithies, who had trained as a chemist, recalls he was allowed to pursue research in any field of inquiry “as long as it had something to do with insulin.” While working at Connaught, Smithies devised a process called starch gel electrophoresis, which acts as a “molecular sieve” and is now used in the form of polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis to separate DNA or protein molecules. The discovery provided a basis for Smithies’ later Nobel-winning work in genetics, but it was a personal connection that cemented his ties to U of T. George Connell and Gordon Dixon, graduate students in biochemistry, worked with Smithies; Connell went on to become U of T’s 12th president.

Smithies says the idea for the visiting lectureships was inspired by Linus Pauling, a two-time Nobel Prize winner, whom he had heard deliver a series of profoundly affecting lectures at Oxford in 1948.“It left me with a feeling I remembered for the rest of my life,” he says. Smithies hopes his gift will leave today’s students similarly inspired.

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