Let’s hear it for the late bloomers: the great thinkers and statesmen who for years struggled to overcome the impression that they would never amount to anything
Woodrow Wilson — governor of New Jersey, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and President of the United States — couldn’t read until he was more than 10 years old; his teachers lumped him in with the slower children in class. Nikola Tesla, a revolutionary scientist whose work on alternating currents is often overlooked in favor of the accomplishments of his mentor Thomas Edison, was accused of cheating after he performed integral calculus in his head.
To this august company add John B. Gurdon, who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine on Monday. Gurdon won the prize along with Japan’s Shinya Yamanaka “for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent” — in other words, that certain mature cells can be remade into young cells that can develop into any body tissue. The $1 million prize is an honor that Gurdon probably never dreamed of as a teenager.
A section from his 2006 research “From Nuclear Transfer to Nuclear Reprogramming: The Reversal of Cell Differentiation” was called “How Not to Start.” In it, the now-79-year-old biologist includes a quote from his teacher wrote about him after his first semester of biology when he was 15.
“I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist; 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 would have to teach him.”
Gurdon attributes his inauspicious start to the fact that his bad memory failed him during a time when schools did not use textbooks and students had to memorize verbal lectures. The British scientist made up for lost time (and knowledge) and eventually studyied zoology at Oxford.
That teacher is long gone, but it’s never too late for vindication in the form of a scientific breakthrough and international renown and money. Plus, Gurdon still has an impressive whoosh of hair.