Famous Scientist Biography: Early life and Education
Sir John Gurdon, the British developmental biologist and famous scientist, keeps a framed note from his former biology teacher over his desk. It reads – “I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist. On present showing, this is quite ridiculous. If he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time both on his part and of those who would have to teach him."
Gurdon was fifteen at the time of this pronouncement, had done exactly one semester of science at Eton and was discouraged from doing any more. No one, certainly not the biology master, had any idea that he would go on to have a distinguished career in developmental biology and do pioneering work in nuclear transplantation and cloning research.
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, science was rather a grim business of rote-learning facts and note-taking, things Gurdon didn’t excel at. After his biology master’s disenchanted verdict, he switched to the Classics, studying Latin and Greek for the remainder of his time at Eton. He considered becoming a Classicist; his worldlier father suggested a career either in the army or the financial sector. As it turned out, the job in the financial world didn’t fructify, the army refused him and his application to study the Classics at Christ Church, Oxford, met with a rather strange response.
The admissions tutor at Oxford, Hugh Trevor-Roper, sent him a letter saying that they would accept him if he came immediately and if he agreed to study Science rather than the Classics. Such a scenario would be improbable today, but back then Oxford was actually short of science students and, according to Gurdon, Trevor-Roper, busy with the wartime politics, was eager to fill up the seats with anyone he could find.
So Gurdon entered the Zoology Department at Christ Church, Oxford, under Sir Alister Hardy, and his parents paid for a year’s extra tuition in science for him to catch up with all he had missed in school.
Later, his fascination with insects led him to apply for a Ph.D. with the Entomology Department. Not accepted, he took up embryology under Michael Fischberg.