Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys is awarded the title of Honorary Doctor of Science by De Montfort University

Citation from graduation ceremony on 22 January

Ladies, gentlemen, and distinguished guests,

I am honoured to be able to introduce you to Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys.

Everyone in this room is aware of Alec’s greatest achievement.  He is the discoverer of DNA fingerprinting, a technique which has had an incredible impact on the lives of tens of millions of people.

Arriving into the world in Oxford in 1950, Alec was born a scientist. For as long as he can remember, science has held a fascination for him above all else. His family moved to Luton when he was six and he began dabbling in chemistry as an eight year old with a chemistry set bought for him by his father. He also owned a microscope, which he used to examine dead insects. This inquisitive nature led the young Alec to pick up a dead cat from the road during his Sunday morning paper round, and before lunch he was happily  dissecting it on the dining room table. His parents were not pleased.

Alec was a pupil at Luton Grammar School then Luton Sixth Form College. Nobody in Alec’s family had been to university before, but the new principal of Luton Sixth Form College encouraged him to apply, and not just anywhere. His principal was an Oxford man – and he told Alec to apply there. This was music to Alec’s ears – now he had a real option to study science at a higher level. In 1968 Alec won a scholarship to Merton College Oxford to study Biochemistry, and off he went.

Alec graduated in 1972 with first class honours, but was by then feeling that biochemistry was not for him. It felt a little remote from real biology, and his interest had been captured by something else; something new. As part of his course he had studied a component on genetics, and even at this early stage in his scientific life Alec felt that genetics was the future, the way forward.

Alec was asked to stay on at Oxford to study for a DPhil. His DPhil project on human cells in culture, completed in 1975 led to him to accept a European Molecular Biology Organisation fellowship to work at the University of Amsterdam for two years. This was Alec’s first experience of working in a molecular genetics laboratory, and he began to flourish. He was now able to take what he refers to as the most important decision in his life – to immerse himself completely in molecular genetics.

As the fellowship was coming to an end, Alec began looking around for somewhere where he could continue his passion for genetics. He began applying for lectureships at universities back in the UK. He was asked to come for an interview at the Department of Genetics at Leicester University. He went back into the lab in Amsterdam and asked everyone – “anyone know where Leicester is ?”. After digging out a Michelin road map of Europe, they established that Leicester was perfectly situated halfway between Scotland and Luton…..

So in the spring of 1977 Alec got out of a taxi on Granby Street in Leicester, and, having some money left over from his fellowship, went into the poshest hotel in Leicester at the time, The Grand. The receptionist took one look at the denim-clad bearded young man and said “we’re full”. Not a good start in Leicester.

Actually, working at the University of Leicester was a revelation – he enjoyed it immensely. As he recalls “there was no fuss, people left you alone you could get on with your research - it really was science as a hobby”.

Alec says he was “lucky” to begin working on a project on gene evolution. One morning in September 1984 he was looking at a patch of human genome when he noticed both similarities and differences between the DNA of different members of his research technician’s family. He immediately recognized that he was seeing highly individual patterns and that this was the basis of DNA-based familial identification. Alec describes this as his “beyond eureka” moment. Within a short period of time Alec had realized the scope of this new technique of DNA fingerprinting – family relations, paternity disputes, immigration disputes and of course, in criminal cases. In late 1985 the first use of DNA fingerprinting in a murder case concluded with the conviction of Colin Pitchfork for a double murder in Leicestershire.

Almost overnight, analysis of DNA in criminal cases became a technique of first resort, via a DNA database.

In 1992, Alec’s methodologies were used to finally confirm the identity of the Nazi Dr Josef Mengele, who had died in 1979, by comparing DNA from his exhumed skeleton with that from his widow and son. This was the first time DNA techniques had been used in a wartime identity investigation. A case which had been going on for 40 years had finally been closed.

Alec estimates that with the DNA database for criminal cases, civil paternity cases and immigration cases that approximately one per cent of the world’s entire population has been touched by this technology, and every one of these cases is a personal drama – DNA fingerprinting has changed lives. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1986 and Knighted for services to genetics in 1994. He was made a Freeman of the City of Leicester in 1993 – we do not know if he has revisited the Grand Hotel since 1977…..

Alec is passionate in his support of what is termed blue-sky research – DNA fingerprinting would never had come from planned projects around impact of research. He did not even know what question he was asking, never mind the answer. He thinks that in research, little of value comes from “safe science”.

Retiring last year, Alec spends more time with his wife Susan now, but he is still very much involved in science. He says that curiosity gets him out of bed in the mornings. Spreading a positive message about science in the media is something that is really important to him. He delivers many lay talks on various aspects of science – which he describes as huge fun, while still recognizing the responsibility of demystifying science for a popular audience.

Alec’s work has touched literally tens of millions of lives; the term “DNA fingerprinting” is now one of the most familiar terms in the English language. He still insists he had a “huge slab of luck”, but discoveries this significant do not happen by accident. It is testament to his hard work, determination but above all his inquisitive nature and pure love of science.

As a university, committed to public good, we urge our graduates to learn from Alec’s example; pursue your passions with determination and never stop asking questions. Like Alec, you may find that your interests turn out to make a real difference to people’s lives and inspire another generation.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, in recognition your accomplishments as a geneticist and your exceptional commitment to science, we ask that you step forward to receive the title of Honorary Doctorate of Science.

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