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Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics

The Frederick Sanger papers

Fred Sanger developed techniques that first made it possible to read the sequences of proteins and nucleic acids, the key components of life.

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Collection overview

Fred Sanger (1918–2013) has the unique distinction of having won two Nobel Prizes in Chemistry. Firm in his convictions and rigorous in his standards, he always shunned the public gaze. There are no personal papers in this collection, nor even scientific correspondence. It consists almost entirely of the laboratory notebooks he kept throughout his working life. These notebooks were donated to the Biochemical Society, and came into the Wellcome Library's collection along with the Society's archives (SA/BIO).

I believe that we have been doing this not primarily to achieve riches or even honour, but rather because we were interested in the work, enjoyed doing it and felt very strongly that it was worthwhile.

Nobel prize banquet speech, 10 November 1980

They include some of his early undergraduate work on snails' eggs, as well as wartime research on the nitrogen content of potatoes. But their main interest resides in their record of Sanger's development of innovative techniques that made it possible to read protein and nucleic acid sequences. The work for each was laborious and painstaking, but his persistence led him to sequence the first protein (insulin), the first whole genome (a virus called ΦX174) and the first human genome (that of mitochondrial DNA). The dideoxy method that he developed to sequence genomes manually was deployed in the automated machines that generated the complete sequence of the human genome between 1990 and 2003.


Fred Sanger is in many ways the ideal of a scientist: someone who works for no other reason than that he is driven to answer questions about life's mysteries. He was born in 1918, the son of a doctor who had become a Quaker. He decided not to enter the medical profession himself, and instead to focus on research.

Sanger with colleague

Sanger (right) with colleague, 1950
from The Biochemical Society archive

Studying for a PhD in biochemistry at Cambridge as World War II broke out, he registered as a conscientious objector (he remained a lifelong opponent of war) and was allowed to continue his research on the amino acid lysine. During the postwar years he realised that it would greatly advance understanding of biology if it were possible to read off the sequence of amino acids that make up proteins. He chose the protein insulin, and developed a method that used radioactively labelled amino acids and paper chromatography to reveal the sequence on photographic film. He published the sequence of the protein's B chain in 1951, its A chain in 1953 and the connecting bonds in 1955. For this work he was awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

In 1962 he joined the newly established Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge as head of the protein and nucleic acid chemistry division. With colleagues such as Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner immersed in the problem of the DNA code, he embarked on the challenge of reading the sequence of nucleotide bases in the DNA molecule. Success brought his second Nobel in 1980, which was followed by further honours including the Order of Merit.

Sanger retired in 1983 and turned his attention to his two main recreations, sailing and gardening. When the Wellcome Trust Sanger Centre (now the Sanger Institute) was named after him in 1993, he told the Director, John Sulston: "It had better be good."

Originals held by...

This material is held by the Wellcome Library where originals may be consulted.

View details in the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue

Of the three main activities involved in scientific research, thinking, talking, and doing, I much prefer the last and am probably best at it. I am all right at the thinking, but not much good at the talking.

Fred Sanger, 'Sequences, sequences, and sequences', in 'Annual Review of Biochemistry', 1988

In The Timeline

1951: Fred Sanger sequences the insulin protein chain

Fred Sanger sequences the insulin protein chain

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