After 35 years' service to University of Leicester DNA fingerprinting pioneer says: 'Work must go on'

Posted by pt91 at Sep 25, 2012 02:43 PM |
Following retirement, Sir Alec Jeffreys to continue role at Leicester as Emeritus Professor
After 35 years' service to University of Leicester DNA fingerprinting pioneer says: 'Work must go on'

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys of our Department of Genetics.

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 25 September 2012

· With regret-there are no opportunities for media interviews with Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys about his retirement

· Images of Professor Jeffreys are available from

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, one of Britain’s leading scientists known as the ‘Father of Genetic Fingerprinting’, has announced he is to continue his association with the University of Leicester, as an Emeritus Professor, following his retirement this month after 35 years’ service at the University.

Professor Jeffreys, who invented the revolutionary technique of DNA fingerprinting at the University of Leicester in 1984, has achieved global accolades and impact from his discovery which has transformed forensic science and identity testing.

He was awarded the highest accolade the University of Leicester could present- a Distinguished Honorary Fellowship – in 2004 when the University paid tribute to the magnitude of his achievement.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Robert Burgess said: “The pursuit of knowledge and quest for excellence is exemplified in the life and work of Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, who discovered DNA fingerprinting. His career is a testament to the values that higher education as a whole holds dear - epitomising the transformative nature of research to change the world for the better.

“His legacy of world-class research and its ability to change the world has not only allowed the University of Leicester to enhance its reputation, it has provided inspiration to generations of undergraduate and postgraduate students, research associates, and peers.

Sir Alec is the epitome of the modern academic: high quality, inclusive, modest and loyal. His joy of scientific research and discovery is shared not only with staff and students but through his tireless outreach work. He loves giving lectures to the lay public and schoolchildren, telling them the story of the discovery of DNA fingerprinting and conveying the excitement of an out-of-the-blue discovery able to solve rapes, murders and questions of identity.

“On behalf of the University of Leicester, as well as personally, I would like to pay special tribute to this remarkable man who, despite lucrative offers from around the world, has remained true to his calling that led to that Eureka moment- a bench scientist whose career and contribution has been defined by the thirst for knowledge and his willingness to share this with people from all walks of life.”

Head of the Department of Genetics Professor Julian Ketley added: “Sir Alec has made an outstanding and hugely significant contribution to Genetics.  He is an extraordinary bench scientist that has been an inspiration to many students and academics over the 35 years he has worked in the Department. He leaves behind him a precious legacy of talented researchers, superb science and a huge public impact. Although he is retiring, the Department hopes we will continue to enjoy his friendship, candid advice and mischievous wit for many years to come.”

Professor Jeffreys joined the Department of Genetics in 1977 as a Lecturer, and has remained at Leicester since where he has held the positions of Professor of Genetics and Royal Society Wolfson Research Professor.  While studying variation in human DNA in 1984 he discovered variation in minisatellites, and developed DNA fingerprinting. Shortly afterwards he demonstrated that the technology had a host of applications ranging from criminal investigations, paternity and immigration disputes through to conservation biology.  In more recent years, Professor Jeffreys has made key contributions to our  understanding of fundamental processes of change in the human genome.

Professor Jeffreys’s work has received widespread recognition, including a Knighthood for services to science and technology in 1994 and the title of Honorary Freeman of the City of Leicester in 1993.  He has received numerous other honours, accolades and awards during his career, including election to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1986. 

The Department of Genetics celebrated Professor Jeffreys’s retirement by hosting a symposium bringing together colleagues past and present.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys said: "It's been an exhilarating 35 years and I'm so grateful to the University and to colleagues in the Department of Genetics for providing such a marvellous and supportive research environment, and for all their help, friendship and support over the years. Our science will of course continue, though it's time for me to pass the baton on to the next generation and hope that they gain as much satisfaction and pleasure from scientific enquiry as I have. I look forward to following the next Leicester discoveries with eager anticipation!"

Despite a lifetime committed to the pursuit of knowledge and sharing the joy of discovery with others, there remains one beguiling quest for him:  “Extra-terrestrial life. I would love to see that before I die.”

· A new Forensic Science Institute named after Professor Jeffreys is being opened at the University in November

· Farewell feature for Professor Jeffreys in his departmental newsletter: news autumn 2012.pdf

· More information on Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys and his achievements are available here: distinguished

Chronology of DNA fingerprinting at Leicester


  • Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys Joined the University of Leicester


  • Professor Jeffreys is joint first to describe how to detect human genetic variation at the DNA level, and first to produce a pretty good estimate of how many sites in the genome, where genetic variation occurred


  • Professor Jeffreys is first to discover DNA Fingerprinting


  • First immigration case solved by DNA fingerprinting
  • First paternity case solved by DNA fingerprinting
  • First identification of identical twins using DNA fingerprinting


  • First criminal investigation to implement DNA fingerprinting evidence


  • First detailed description of the rate of mutation in humans at the DNA level

Early 1990s

  • First to develop sperm analysis technology


  • Identification of Josef Mengele by DNA analysis from skeletal remains


  • Professor Jeffreys contributes to work by Professor Yuri Dubrova investigating mutations caused by the Chernobyl disaster


  • First to describe in detail what a recombination ‘hotspot’ is


  • Work contributing to the ‘International HapMap Project’

Sir Alec's present research

  • Further analysis of recombination hotspots, what causes them and what affects they have on human genetic diversity?
  • The implications of recombination on genes linked to diseases such as thalassaemia and diabetes


"In 1984 I sat in a prison cell waiting to die for a crime I didn't commit. I read about the work of Sir Alec Jeffreys and I had an epiphany: this could prove my innocence and set me free!"

~ Kirk Bloodsworth, wrongly accused of sexually assaulting and murdering a 9-year old girl, for which he served eight years in prison (with two on death row). After DNA evidence discovered by Sir Alec Jeffreys exonerated him in 1992, he was released in 1993.

"Sir Alec Jeffrey's work was absolutely crucial to the investigation. It was the first time that DNA evidence had been used in a criminal investigation. His tests not only established that one young man was innocent, but that one solitary man had committed both murders. His work enabled the police to add another quota to the investigation that led to the murderer being apprehended. He was fully committed to what we were doing, and entered into the investigation completely. He realised the consequences of his work; what he provided was vital. He was very approachable, and I thought he was a modest man, as well as a brilliant scientist. His technique was implemented across the UK, and rapidly spread across the world, and it will continue to have ramifications for years to come. It can reach into the past and solve crimes thought to be impossible to solve. His work is truly remarkable. I think it was the greatest contribution to forensic science and criminal investigation in the 20th Century."

~ Former Detective Chief Superintendent David Baker, Head of CID, Leicestershire Police. Sir Alec Jeffreys was instrumental in solving the murders of two 15-year-old girls in 1983 and 1986.

"Sir Alec Jeffreys' main involvement with Cellmark was in the early part of our company's history, but the influence of his scientific developments has continued throughout our existence.  With the commercial rights to Alec Jeffreys' discoveries, Cellmark was established in 1987 to commercialise DNA fingerprinting technology.  In the following 10 years, his technology was fundamental to the services that we provided in relationship analysis and forensic identification, and was the precursor to the analytical approaches that we use today.  DNA analysis remains at the core of our business which has grown from less than 20 people in 1987 to more than 450 today.

"The impact of his contributions to forensic science is difficult to quantify, but it is safe to say that his work revolutionised forensic analysis and has had an enormous impact on policing and criminal investigation. Today, DNA profiling is the investigator's most powerful tool not only to help identify the guilty but also to exonerate the innocent and is used across the spectrum of criminal offences, from homicides and sexual crimes to burglaries and car thefts.  Sir Alec Jeffreys' DNA technology has also brought certainty to relationship analysis and has assisted in resolving hundreds of thousands of family custody disputes and in reuniting families seeking immigration.

"Alec Jeffreys has always been very approachable and down to earth.  Despite being a world authority in his field he has always made the effort to encourage and speak to young scientists on an individual basis.  Certainly he and his work have been an inspiration to the current generation of forensic DNA scientists."

~ Dr David Hartshorne, Commercial Director of Cellmark Forensic Services. Cellmark Diagnostics is the exclusive manufacturer and distributor of the DNA identification technology invented by Sir Alec Jeffreys.   In 1988 the Home Office made the technique available for all police.

"I worked with Sir Alec Jeffreys on the validity of using DNA fingerprinting evidence for proof of paternity. Historically, these were resolved through blood grouping, which had its particular weaknesses. After Sir Alec Jeffreys' technology arrived, there was no longer the need to question the legitimacy of paperwork in immigration issues - the case could be resolved through DNA paternity testing.

"His technology played right across the world of applications. It was used in determining the parentage of livestock, testing horse pedigrees, even understanding the genetics of fruit! DNA fingerprinting is now very relevant to many aspects of human life. When you think of forensics, DNA is at the heart of it. When you think of paternity, DNA is at the heart of it. The technology we use now, though not exactly the same, was built on the same logic as the technology of Sir Alec Jeffreys. The UK and the world have benefitted from his work.

"He's a tremendous individual, and it was a real privilege to work with him. There's a tendency for brilliant scientists to think they are brilliant at business and everything else, but Sir Alec Jeffrey's tremendous advantage is that he is a brilliant scientist who knows his strengths.

"I remember the first results coming through at ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries). We wanted the results to be good because we felt committed to him, and didn't want to let him down because he's such a nice guy."

~ Dr Paul Debenham is nowadays Director of Innovation & Development, LGC (Laboratory of the Government Chemist). The company is actively involved in forensics DNA casework and the methodology used today around the world called DNA profiling, has been built on the principles of Sir Alec Jeffreys' work.


"Sir Alec was a Lister Institute Fellow in 1984 when DNA fingerprinting was developed, actually as a side area to the work he was doing for his fellowship!  At that time nobody could have foreseen the impact which the technology would have.  Subsequently the implications became clearer and Sir Alec and the Institute entered into an agreement with ICI to develop and exploit the technique, with the Institute receiving a share of the royalties and the establishment of ICI Cellmark Diagnostics to fully exploit 'DNA fingerprinting' and its sister technology 'DNA profiling'; the Institute sharing in the Queen's award for Technological Achievement in 1990. 

"The technology has developed rapidly and with PCR-based typing systems allowing the creation of major national, and inter-national, DNA databases which are proving very effective in the fight against crime. DNA fingerprinting and profiling now play a vital role in forensic science and pathology, but has also opened up other areas of science, including the development of new methods to explore the processes of mutation and recombination and the ultimate source of all human DNA variation. This has allowed us to explore the effects of environmental exposure to radiation on heritable mutations in human DNA.  It has enabled us to understand the genetics of populations and the movements and integration of early civilisations.

"Sir Alec has continued his close association with the Lister Institute, as a member of its Governing Body and giving the first 'Special Lister Lecture' in 2006. In 2012 Sir Alec was given the honour of life-time membership of the Governing Body in recognition of his huge contributions to UK science and the Institute - he retains his passion for the training of young researchers and the provision of appropriate funding schemes to nurture their careers."

~ Dr Trevor Hince, Director of the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine. Sir Alec Jeffreys was a Research Fellow of The Lister Institute at the time of the discovery of DNA genetic fingerprinting, and all rights to the patents are vested in the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine.

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