Sydney Brenner

South African biologist, Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine 2002

Sydney Brenner (13 January 1927 – 5 April 2019) was a South African biologist and winner of the 2002 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine, shared with H. Robert Horvitz and John Sulston. Brenner made significant contributions to work on the genetic code and pioneering efforts in molecular biology. He established C. elegans as a model organism for the investigation of developmental biology.

E. Lederberg, G. Stent, S. Brenner, J. Lederberg, 1965.


  • Current ideas of the uses of Model Organisms spring form the exemplars of the past and choosing the right organism for one's research is as important as finding the right problems to work on. In all my research these two problems have been closely intertwined.
    • Nobel Lecture, Sydney Brenner, The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 2002
  • A lot of the things that have been accomplished in science have been accomplished on the basis of ignorance … in the sense that you import into the science people from outside. Because once you have an established science, it has got its high priests — the guys who know everything that will work or won't work. And they don't want to be bothered. So you have to have a challenge. And the great thing is that young people are ignorant, and we should catch them before they turn into the priesthood. So I think that science should have a much more daring approach.
  • Even God wouldn’t get a grant today because somebody on the committee would say, oh those were very interesting experiments (creating the universe), but they’ve never been repeated. And then someone else would say, yes and he did it a long time ago, what’s he done recently? And a third would say, to top it all, he published it all in an un-refereed journal (The Bible).
  • Then we started clinical work ... and I just wasn't suited to that. I didn't like ... the whole structure of a teaching hospital. That is, I felt very much that treating patients as things is the wrong thing. And since I thought it was very hard to be a scientist and not do this, then I preferred not to do it at all. So, in fact, I think I am the only person who has ever passed medicine who had never seen a patient until his examination — because I never went. And, in fact, one of the great stories is that I failed my medicine because I was asked to smell this patient's breath and correctly diagnosed Macleans toothpaste where I should have diagnosed acetone.
  • Well, I think my skills are in getting things started. ... In fact, that's what I enjoy most — it's the opening game. And I'm afraid that once it gets past that point I get rather bored with it and want to do other things. ... The other thing I'm good at is talking.

Quotes about Sydney Brenner

  • Like Feynman, Brenner is witty and has won a Nobel Prize. But most important for a legend, Brenner, like Feynman, has this wonderful superiority complex, which results in irreverence, disdain for authority, and allergy to pomposity. This is what young starting scientists love.
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