In the third of our series about the digitised archive collections in ‘Codebreakers: makers of modern genetics’, Jenny Shaw, archive project officer at the Wellcome Library, explores Fred Sanger’s research notebooks:
My involvement with Sanger’s notebooks is through the Human Genome Archive Project. I have been looking at the work of scientists who not only directly contributed to the Human Genome Project to sequence the entire human genome, but also those whose work made the whole project possible. I have been surveying scientists to find out whether records of their work have survived. My survey period runs from 1977 to 2004, starting with the development of Sanger sequencing to determine base sequences in DNA.
Frederick Sanger’s notebooks are part of the Biochemical Society collection (SA/BIO), deposited at the Wellcome Library.
Sanger’s name might not be as well-known as some of the other scientists included in this project, but he is one of just four people to have been awarded two Nobel Prizes. He was awarded his first in 1958 “for his work on the structure of proteins, especially that of insulin”. The second award was shared in 1980 for his contribution to determining base sequences in DNA. Sanger’s sequencing technique allowed long stretches of DNA to be rapidly and accurately sequenced. It was the Sanger method that was used by the automated sequencing machines that allowed the 3 billion base pairs of the human genome to be identified in the Human Genome Project. It’s not a coincidence that the UK sequencing centre that contributed a third of the finished human genome sequence bears his name.
Sanger’s lab notebooks offer a fascinating insight into his work; beyond his published papers in scientific journals. They help to illustrate that scientific discoveries are not simply a flash of brilliance, but are often the result of a gradual development of ideas and techniques through both success and failure. Sanger’s comments from some of his experiments during 1973 and 1974 demonstrate this (SA/BIO/P/1/43). The results from experiment D94 on priming with restriction enzyme fragments are described as “pretty ghastly”:
After experiment D106 on decamer sequencing he notes “These are not too good…. doesn’t really seem this would be a reliable method as it stands”: