The Honorary Graduates

188th Congregation (2013)

Alec John JEFFREYS
Doctor of Science honoris causa

Professor Sir Alec John Jeffreys is a distinguished geneticist and internationally respected pioneer in DNA fingerprinting.

He studied biochemistry and genetics at Merton College, Oxford. Following an European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Amsterdam where, with Dr Richard Flavell, he was one of the first to discover split genes. He moved in 1977 to the Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester, where he held the positions of Professor of Genetics and Royal Society Wolfson Research Professor until his retirement in 2012.

Sir Alec's research at Leicester focussed on exploring human DNA variation and the mutation processes that create this diversity. He was one of the first to discover inherited variation in human DNA, then went on to invent DNA fingerprinting, showing how it could be used to resolve issues of identity and kinship. This discovery revolutionised forensic and legal medicine, and has impacted the lives of millions of people worldwide. His more recent work concentrated on developing new approaches to analysing variation and mutation in human chromosomes.

Sir Alec's work has received widespread recognition, including his election to the Royal Society in 1986 and a Knighthood for services to genetics in 1994. Other awards include the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine (2004), the Lasker Award (2005) and the Heineken Prize (2006). He was also one of the four finalists for the Millennium Technology Prize in 2008.

In recognition of his contributions to medical research and society, the University has resolved to confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.


Citation

Mr Pro-Chancellor

It may well be true that Sir Alec Jeffreys has caught more murderers and rapists and set free more innocent people than anyone else in history.

And he has accomplished this from his laboratory at the University of Leicester.

Sir Alec is indeed one of the world's most distinguished geneticists. Born in Oxford in 1950, his love of invention was inherited from his father and grandfather, who were both keen innovators. His life of discovery began at the age of eight when he was given a chemistry set and microscope by his father. These gifts introduced him to the mysterious world of chemistry and biology, a combination which laid the basis for his eminently successful career. Having permanently scarred himself with sulphuric acid, he turned to the safer pursuit of biology, first dissecting insects and then moving on to the greater challenge of a dead cat he found by the roadside. His use of the kitchen table for this latter purpose did not, however, delight his parents.

His passion for discovery, encouraged by his parents, produced a remarkably talented schoolboy. Having obtained his first degree in biochemistry and his doctorate in genetics at Oxford University, he spent two years in Amsterdam before moving to the University of Leicester in 1977, where he has remained happily ever since.

It was on Monday 10 September 1984 that he experienced that rare 'eureka' moment, so famous in scientific discoveries. Of this he has said:

Most scientific research is a slow, painful slog, a sort of three steps forward, two steps back and the truth slowly emerges from the gloom. What we had was a rare thing in science and that was my eureka moment when we first stumbled upon the whole idea of DNA fingerprinting.

Sir Alec was looking at an X-ray image of DNA from various individuals and, within a few minutes, realized the potential scope of DNA fingerprinting by using the variations in the genetic codes of individuals for the purpose of identifying them.

The consequences of this discovery were profound and global. The technique of identifying individuals from variations in their DNA has proved particularly useful to forensic science in identifying the perpetrators of crime and excluding other suspects. It is also widely used by way of proof of identity in paternity and immigration disputes and can be applied to non-human species, for example in wildlife population genetics studies.

His technique is now used on a worldwide scale and has become vastly commercialised. Perhaps best known amongst its many high profile uses has been the identification from his remains of Dr Josef Mengele for German prosecutors and its use by Sir Alec's colleagues at the University of Leicester to establish the probability that remains found in a car park in Leicester are those of King Richard III who died at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

It must not be thought, however, that Sir Alec's only scientific discovery was genetic fingerprinting. He has also made remarkable advances in the study of copy genes, split genes and pseudogenes which are of immense scientific significance.

His more recent research has concentrated on trying to discern how variation is generated in human DNA by developing new and very powerful techniques to detect spontaneous changes in the genetic information as it is transmitted from parent to child.

Sir Alec's remarkable achievements have, naturally, attracted wide and deserved recognition. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at the very young age of 36 and was knighted by the Queen for his services to genetics in 1994. He has also received the Albert Einstein World of Science Award and the Australia Prize. In 2007 he was voted Morgan Stanley's 'Greatest Briton'.

Sir Alec formally retired from the University of Leicester in 2012 and, in his own words, he has happily passed the baton on to the next generation of young researchers. However, he has never lost his initial passion. When delivering the Shirley Boyd Memorial Lecture at this University in 2008, Sir Alec, having pointed out that with DNA testing now a staple of television crime dramas, gave this advice for budding science students who wish to follow in the footsteps of their Crime Scene Investigation heroes:

'Go for it. Science is terrific fun. The fact that you can go out with your bare hands and find out interesting things about the world through experimentation never ceases to amaze me'.

Mr Pro-Chancellor, the world is undoubtedly a safer place in which to live and the criminal detection system more just thanks to the endeavours of Sir Alec.

Mr Pro-Chancellor

It is my privilege and honour to present to you Sir Alec John Jeffreys for the award of Doctor of Science honoris causa.

Citation written and delivered by Professor Michael Wilkinson, the Public Orator.

 


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