(p. B15) Oliver Smithies, a British-born biochemist and inveterate tinkerer who shared a Nobel Prize for discovering a powerful tool for identifying the roles of individual genes in health and disease, died on Tuesday [January 10, 2017] in Chapel Hill, N.C. He was 91.
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Dr. Smithies’s discovery, known as gene targeting, allows scientists to disable individual genes in mice to understand what the genes do. The loss of a gene typically brings about changes in the appearance or the behavior of the mice, providing important clues about the gene’s function.
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In addition to gene targeting, Dr. Smithies invented a method of separating proteins with a jelly made from ordinary potato starch, a major advance that was cheaper, easier and more precise than existing technologies. His invention, called gel electrophoresis, is in wide use today.
Behind Dr. Smithies’s breakthroughs were ingenious homemade contraptions cobbled from everyday objects and junk. He thought of himself as an inventor and toolmaker and acknowledged that he could not pass a rubbish bin without pausing to inspect the contents — a trait he said he shared with his paternal grandfather, who used to pick up nails and straighten them for later use.
His tinkering did not go unnoticed. Colleagues at Oxford University, where Dr. Smithies pursued his graduate studies, set aside their discarded equipment for him, labeling it, “NBGBOKFO,” or “No bloody good but O.K. for Oliver.”
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To Dr. Smithies, the process of invention was straightforward. “You use whatever is lying around, and you see something that needs to be done, and you try to do it,” he said. “I think it is making things work, you know, somehow.”
For the full obituary, see:
DENISE GELLENE. “Oliver Smithies, Tinkerer Who Transformed Genetics and Won a Nobel, Dies at 91.” The New York Times (Thurs., JAN. 12, 2017): B15.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date JAN. 11, 2017.)