Sir Paul Nurse: The True Superhero of Genetics With an Astonishing Origin Story

For most Nobel laureates, the award of the prize is the capstone on a storied career. For Sir Paul Nurse, it was the prelude to a story that had little to do with his groundbreaking work as a geneticist, and everything to do with his own family’s extraordinary and convoluted history. It’s a story that is in equal parts improbable and tragic, but one that Sir Paul is happy to tell with his trademark good grace and self-effacing humor, ensuring that his remarkable backstory helps to amplify his voice as an advocate for scientific research and education.  

Sir Paul Nurse as a child in the 1950s

Parlez-vous génétique?

Paul was born in 1949 in the city of Norwich, England, into what seemed like an ordinary family. The Nurses lived and worked in the working class London suburb of Wembley, where his father was a mechanic at the local Heinz food canning plant, while his mother raised her four children while working part-time as a cleaner. Paul was by far the youngest of their children, and described his upbringing as “at times… like being an only child”. Although the family were not wealthy, they were comfortable and supportive of Paul’s academic ambitions. He was a clearly intelligent child but one who struggled with examinations, a serious drawback in the regimented and archaic world of British education in the 1960s. Although he was a gifted science student he struggled in other areas, and his attempts to go to university were initially thwarted by his failure to fulfill the vital requirement of a foreign language qualification. After a couple of years killing time working in the laboratory of the Guinness brewery, he persuaded the faculty staff at the University of Birmingham to overlook his deficiencies in French, and admit him as a biology student. 

Sir Paul Nurse: The True Superhero of Genetics With an Astonishing Origin Story

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For most Nobel laureates, the award of the prize is the capstone on a storied career. For Sir Paul Nurse, it was the prelude to a story that had little to do with his groundbreaking work as a geneticist, and everything to do with his own family’s extraordinary and convoluted history. It’s a story that is in equal parts improbable and tragic, but one that Sir Paul is happy to tell with his trademark good grace and self-effacing humor, ensuring that his remarkable backstory helps to amplify his voice as an advocate for scientific research and education.  

Sir Paul Nurse as a child in the 1950s

Parlez-vous génétique?

Paul was born in 1949 in the city of Norwich, England, into what seemed like an ordinary family. The Nurses lived and worked in the working class London suburb of Wembley, where his father was a mechanic at the local Heinz food canning plant, while his mother raised her four children while working part-time as a cleaner. Paul was by far the youngest of their children, and described his upbringing as “at times… like being an only child”. Although the family were not wealthy, they were comfortable and supportive of Paul’s academic ambitions. He was a clearly intelligent child but one who struggled with examinations, a serious drawback in the regimented and archaic world of British education in the 1960s. Although he was a gifted science student he struggled in other areas, and his attempts to go to university were initially thwarted by his failure to fulfill the vital requirement of a foreign language qualification. After a couple of years killing time working in the laboratory of the Guinness brewery, he persuaded the faculty staff at the University of Birmingham to overlook his deficiencies in French, and admit him as a biology student. 

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Paul quickly made amends for this enforced slow start to his academic career. Fortunately his time working in a brewery laboratory had not been entirely wasted, as his academic work also involved yeast. By the time he was 24 he was doing groundbreaking research into the genetic processes that control cell growth in fission yeast, a strain that is used in traditional brewing but is also of great interest to geneticists thanks to its single-cell composition. In 1976 he identified the gene cdc2 as the gene that governs the cell cycle process, taking a cell through its growth stages and then mitosis, the subdivision into two daughter cells. Over the next decade he led a growing laboratory of researchers who studied cdc2’s role and, by 1987, were able to prove that cdc2 had a counterpart in the human body, known as cdk1, which performed the same role in controlling human cell reproduction.  

Everything might not be hunky dory

Paul’s enormous contributions to the field of genetics led to endless awards, commendations and job offers. In 1998 he was awarded the Lasker prize, and the following year he was knighted, becoming Sir Paul Nurse. In 2001, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his genetic research, and two years later he accepted a position as the president of New York’s Rockefeller University, where he continued to work on the cell cycles of fission yeast. His tremendous success had elevated him to the top of his field, and as he would later describe it, everything appeared to be “all hunky dory”. His work had always involved a large amount of international travel, attending conferences and other academic events, but now that he was living in the US in the post-9/11 world of stringent airport security, it seemed sensible to apply for a green card to avoid lengthy immigration checks on his return to New York. He filed his application, and was perplexed when it was rejected. As he later joked “I thought: ‘how come I’m rejected? I’m a knight, I’ve got a Nobel prize, I’m president of Rockefeller university, and they reject me for a green card!’ I know Homeland Security has high standards, but this did seem more than a little ridiculous.”

Sir Paul Nurse: The True Superhero of Genetics With an Astonishing Origin Story
Paul at the unveiling of a portrait with photographer David Brooks

The problem was with the documentation he had supplied with his application. He’d provided a short form birth certificate, listing his place of birth and similar details but containing no information about his parents. Paul sent off for a long form certificate, but when it arrived his secretary noticed something unusual. She approached Paul and, pointing at the form, asked “maybe you’ve got the name of your mother wrong?” The mother’s name on the certificate was Nurse, but to his astonishment the forename was Miriam; not the name of his mother, but of his sister. No father’s name was recorded. As Sir Paul tells it, he wasn’t able to process this information, and his wife was the one who explained the likely implication. The woman who he had believed to be his sister, Miriam, was 18 years and one month older than him, and was in fact his mother.  

Miriam had died some years previously, and so had the people who he had previously understood to be his parents, so for confirmation Paul contacted a surviving great Aunt who had been present at his birth. She confirmed that Miriam was indeed his mother. She had become pregnant at seventeen, and rather than suffer the scandal of having an illegitimate son she was sent to live with an aunt in Norwich, where she gave birth to Paul. Miriam’s mother then collected Paul, and pretended the boy was her own son. Paul, Miriam and her parents returned to life in their small London flat for two years, before Miriam got married and left home. Paul describes a photo taken at his real mother’s wedding where she holds the hand of her young son on one side, and her new husband on the other. Her husband never learned the truth of her relationship to her Nobel laureate son.

Avoiding “Nobelitis”

This extraordinary story has been written into legend, but Sir Paul has used it wisely to help boost his profile as a science communicator. He has even performed it as a spoken word theater piece at venues such as the famous storytelling event The Moth. Although he deftly  plays his incredible backstory of his mother for laughs, he also manages to highlight his own work, and particularly the irony of a Nobel prize winning geneticist - whose work revolved around the life cycle and reproduction of cells - being so completely unaware of the nature of his own birth. This has enabled him to double down on the interest generated by his Nobel prize award, and assume an important role as a public spokesperson for the scientific community. He’s outspoken on a wide variety of subjects, including the dangers of pseudoscience and the importance of adequate funding and support for scientific research and education.

He’s also careful to avoid being lured into subjects that are beyond his remit. As he has told interviewers: “The Nobel Prize is a poisoned chalice in many ways. All of a sudden you have a second job because everybody wants a piece of your time. I mean, let’s be honest: we probably wouldn’t be having this interview if I hadn’t won the Nobel Prize… There’s also this notorious disease I like to call ‘Nobelitis’: its symptoms include people asking you questions about things you know absolutely nothing about, and after a while, you start thinking that you really are an expert on everything. But my family and my friends have kept me grounded. I’m grateful for that.” After all of the vital pioneering work that he has carried out in his storied career as a geneticist, his own history serves as a reminder that even the most expert among us can be surprised, and while it’s tragic that he was never able to celebrate his remarkable achievements with his real mother, there’s no doubt that she would secretly have been especially proud of her remarkable True Superhero son.

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