Here is the speech which Dr Alan Smith hoped to give had not covid stopped him travelling.
Editor's note: For those who do not know, Fred Sanger is one of only two people to win two Nobel Prizes in the same subject.
Price’s School 300th Anniversary
Sunday May 22nd 2022
Remarks by Dr Alan E Smith CBE FRS
A Fortunate Generation
Thank you for organising this lovely event and for your kind invitation to speak. It is wonderful to see everyone here, especially Brian Turner, who is my exact contemporary. We were great friends at school - but haven’t seen one another in almost 60 years. It’s fun to be able to reflect on those times, that in our case were between 1957 and 1963. What was it about that time and especially about Price’s that made that time so special?
First, it was a very fortunate time to be born; following enlightened legislation in the 1940s, universal health-care and secondary education were provided by central government. And in our case here in Fareham, we were also fortunate to have Price’s School, enabled by William Price’s legacy.
When I arrived at Price’s in 1957 it was an extraordinary place; not because of facilities – they were just about adequate – but the community, especially the Teachers - dedicated, caring, selfless, long-serving – and extraordinarily well qualified. They very much looked out for the best interests of the boys.
I had a wonderful time at Price’s. I loved the academics but also the Sports. I played on the school football team and a particular memory is of how good a mug of hot tea tastes, after an afternoon on a frozen soccer pitch. And CCF - playing soldiers on Friday afternoons. Those horrible scratchy khaki shirts; blanco-ing our canvas belts and gaiters; spit polishing our boots and never quite managing the shine achieved by RSM Dowse. In my case I was particularly fortunate in that after O levels, Tom Hilton, my chemistry teacher said ‘you should apply to Cambridge, would you like me to write a recommendation to my college?’
It was a time when education was highly valued, opportunities abounded, and scholarships were widely available. On my Dad’s side, my family are farmers, going back 300 years around Meonstoke up the valley from here. I was the first to go to university and yet, in 1964, there I was off to Christ’s College.
I quickly learned that it was also a very fortunate time to be in the Sciences. Amazingly, in the 1940s it was still widely held that there was a special life force that defied the normal Laws of Chemistry and Physics. It was only in the early 50s that such a notion was finally dispelled when Fred Sanger sequenced Insulin, and definitively showed that it was just another chemical structure, albeit a very complex one. Then, in 1953 the structure of DNA was elucidated by Watson and Crick, giving rise to molecular biology and all that followed.
Little did I know that only 3 years after leaving Fareham, I would be in Fred Sanger’s office discussing doing a PhD and Francis Crick would be working daily on the floor below. It was extraordinary to be able to work for 3years there in the Laboratory for Molecular Biology. It is a national treasure, and it should be more widely known that scientists within that single building have won more Nobel Prizes than France.
My time in Cambridge – made possible by Price’s School - was transformative; it changed my life. As Chairman of Cambridge in America I have heard that from countless other alumni both in this country and in USA. I don’t have time to describe my professional work but simply say there have been huge advances in Life Sciences in the last 50 years, many made in Cambridge: cloning of DNA, the discovery of monoclonal antibodies, the whole new industry of biotechnology, and the sequencing of the human genome. I feel very fortunate to have played a small part in it. In my mind, this all culminated recently when, from the time we learned the sequence of COVID virus, to having a vaccine widely available was 10 months. Let me tell you, as one who has developed several similar products, that is utterly spectacular. I believe we are all very fortunate it was possible.
Before I close let me mention that, somewhat to my surprise I ended up with 5 children. They have all gone to school and university in USA; in fact, only last Wednesday my youngest graduated from NYU at Yankee Stadium. I’ll readily admit their schools and colleges were excellent - but they cost a fortune. I can also tell you based on their experience, that the education I was lucky enough to receive at Price’s, and later in Cambridge, was second to none. And all of it was totally free. We truly were a fortunate generation.
I suspect that those same opportunities no longer exist here in UK. But then again, that period when the Government could afford to pay for everything was something of an anomaly. Education, especially higher education for most of history has always been supported at least in part by philanthropy. At one time Price’s Foundation offered both school scholarships and exhibitions for high education. Perhaps we ourselves can best honour the memory of William Price by continuing to support education, especially teachers and scholarships, by whatever means we have available, be they volunteering or financial. And remember too that Cambridge is still looking for bright young students, especially from the State sector. They don’t get enough applications and amazingly enough that is often because teachers discourage students from applying. A reason given is often that such places are elite. They are indeed elite, but only in the sense that Boston Red Sox and Liverpool Football Club are elite sports teams – unashamedly seeking to be the best. Cambridge welcomes anyone likely to benefit, including, as of this year a foundation course for school leavers who, for whatever reason, are not yet ready to begin at the undergraduate level. Incidentally, that foundation course is entirely paid for by a gift from Cambridge in America. If you know of aspiring students, please encourage them to apply. It could transform their lives.
To close, thank you William Price and your legacy of 300 years ago and all that it has enabled; thank you for your support of his memory and thank you for the opportunity to spend this time together.