‘The joy of science’: Remembering Dr. Smithies, Carolina’s first Nobel laureate

Hundreds of Carolina faithful gathered together on Tuesday evening to pay tribute to Dr. Oliver Smithies, a world-renowned scientist and UNC’s first Nobel Laureate, who passed away after a short illness in January. He was 91.

‘The joy of science’: Remembering Dr. Smithies, Carolina’s first Nobel laureate click to enlarge Hundreds gather to remember Dr. Oliver Smithies, UNC's first Nobel Laureate. Photo by Brian Strickland.
‘The joy of science’: Remembering Dr. Smithies, Carolina’s first Nobel laureate click to enlarge Smithies, left, and Field Morey after their world-record translatlantic flight in a single-engine airplane. Photo contributed.

By Caroline Curran, caroline.curran@unchealth.unc.edu

CHAPEL HILL, NC – He was a geneticist who changed scientific research and, in doing so, earned a Nobel Prize.

On Tuesday, Dr. Oliver Smithies was remembered for his work beyond the bench – even though that was a place one could find him, seven days a week, until he passed away at age 91.

While there were stories and memories shared of Smithies’ profound impact on science, genetics and biomedical research, most people remembered Smithies for his kindness, his supportive nature, his constant curiosity, his never-ending quest for knowledge, his world record-breaking transatlantic flight in a single-engine airplane, and a deep and earnest love for ice cream. 

“We all know that Oliver conducted several experiments through his tremendously inspiring career that lasted more than 70 years,” said William L. Roper, MD, MPH, Dean of the UNC School of Medicine and CEO of UNC Health Care. “Our UNC scientific community surely knew of his accomplishments back in 1988 when he came here. But I’m told that we didn’t recruit Oliver to come to UNC. We recruited Oliver’s wife, Dr. Nobuyo Maeda (Robert H. Wagner Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the UNC School of Medicine.) Our very own Aziz Sancar was part of that search committee. He, of course, was our second Nobel Laureate. Aziz pushed hard to hire Nobuyo. And when we hired her, Oliver also joined our Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.”

Smithies, who was the School of Medicine’s Weatherspoon Eminent Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 2007 for his trailblazing work on gene targeting and “knockout mice,” both of which gave researchers the ability to study diseases in a way never before possible. In fact, he was one of the first scientists to physically separate a gene from the rest of the DNA of the human genome, which is known as isolating a gene. He shared the prize with Mario Capecchi, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of Utah, and Sir Martin Evans of the United Kingdom.

“Oliver, Nobuyo, and colleagues did truly remarkable work that changed the field of biomedical research,” Roper said. “Being able, experimentally, to target genes to study what individual genes actually do was a monumental leap. It was inspiring to have the Nobel Committee honor someone so loved at UNC. The award shined a bright light on this university as a premier research institution, and all of us loved that Oliver was so open with his joy of science because his enthusiasm was contagious.”

Smithies’ most recent work focused on hypertension and kidney function, which, it turns out was inspired by the younger generations studying in his lab.

John Krege, MD, a translational and clinical scientist at Eli Lilly and Company, who was a postdoc in Smithies’ lab in the early 1990s, recalls going to the geneticist, who he called his “scientific father,” to tell him he wanted to research hypertension.

“I was extremely surprised when he said that he, too, was interested in studying hypertension, and he offered me a spot in his lab,” Krege said. “I think he saw the path forward rather than the many, many obstacles that a lot of people would have seen. The first thing I asked him was, ‘Oliver, do you know anything about hypertension?’ And he said, ‘Well, no, but I went to medical school for a year.’

“He didn’t realize the things he wanted to do were impossible, so he did them.”

Within a few days of Krege meeting him, Smithies had summarized the key pathways involved in blood pressure control all, of course, on one page of his notebook.

“What I realized was, although he didn’t know anything about hypertension, he had more important skills. He knew how to learn, and how to go into a new area and learn the key points,” Krege said. “He taught me to go in all the way. Within a few weeks of our first meeting, he had six postdocs working on hypertension. He encouraged me to come to his lab and stay for a while.”

When he could be torn away from the bench, Smithies would likely be found traveling back to his beloved England to visit family, sailing with friends in the Florida Keys – one time, nearly running ashore at the Key West International Airport – and, above all else, flying.

Field Morey, Smithies’ friend and flight instructor, recalled the duo’s world record-breaking flight from Canada to Scotland in a single-engine airplane, a record that still stands today. Morey also recounted the nearly ill-fated sailing trip to Key West.

Morey closed with a tribute to aviators: “Oliver, you have slipped the surly bonds of earth and danced on laughter-silvered wings. Fly high, my friend. Fly high.”

Smithies’ notebooks – from the bench and from the air – can be read online. In November 2016, UNC’s Wilson Library, with support from the Office of the Provost, digitized 150 handwritten, personal notebooks penned by Smithies dating back to when he was a biochemistry graduate student at Oxford University. The notebooks contain meticulous lab notes, as well as a tribute to his lifelong passion – aviation.

To read more about Smithies’ accomplished career, click here.

Click here for a photo slideshow documenting Smithies' life and career.

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