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Tuesday 20.03.2018 | Name days: Made, Irbe

Nobel prize winner's dreadful school report

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John Gurdon

The immediate assumption one has on hearing that an academic has won the Nobel Prize  is that he must always have been a brilliant and hard-working individual  who was marked out for golden success.

In the case of the Cambridge scientist Sir John Gurdon, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine this week, we were roundly disabused of this notion when he let it be known that his school science report began with the word ‘Disastrous’ — and went downhill from there, writes The Daily Mail.

British scientist John Gurdon, 79, of the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, UK, won the Nobel Prize in Medicine on Oct. 8 for what the Nobel Assembly called «groundbreaking discoveries that have completely changed our view of the development and specialization of cells.» He shared the prize with Shinya Yamanaka, 50, of Kyoto University in Japan, who built on Gurdon’s findings.

«I believe he has ideas about becoming a scientist,» Gurdon’s biology teacher once wrote in his school report. «On his 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 have to teach him.»

Gurdon’s work was far from satisfactory. One effort scored two marks out of a possible 50. In a class of 18 at Eton College, this master placed Gurdon 18th.

And yet, 79-year-old Gurdon has for decades been pre-eminent in the field of cloning and cell research.

In 1962, Gurdon became the first scientist to successfully clone an animal, using the egg of a frog to make a healthy tadpole. True, there are those who have questioned some of the ethical issues arising out of his work. It is as a direct consequence of his endeavours, for example, that other scientists decided to proceed with cloning Dolly the Sheep. He has also been at the vanguard of defending genetically modified crops.

But no one in recent years has questioned Sir John’s brilliance, nor his dedication to his work. Even when he was the Master  of Magdalene College at Cambridge University, with administrative responsibility to students and scholars, Sir John never let up in his scientific work, and was hard at it in the laboratory even on days when he had also to attend fundraising meetings and the like.

But there is another way of looking at it. Is it not possible that this patently honest report is one of the reasons why Gurdon went on to such great heights?

John Gurdon became a great scientist, not because he was a conceited, lazy boy, who thought he knew it all, when he did not. He became a great scientist when he stopped being that boy, and learned the tough lessons that his biology master wanted to teach him: get your facts right, apply yourself, learn to be humble in respect of facts, work hard.

In most schools today, the ethos is that children must be congratulated at all times, even when they have achieved nothing spectacular. It is thought desirable to continue praising and emphasising the positive. As a result, proper school reports are a thing of the past.

But the fact is that unless someone tells a young pupil that they could do better, they never will do better.


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