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7 things you didn't know about Sir Paul Nurse

4 April 2017

Bristol’s new Chancellor Sir Paul Nurse is not one to shy away from a challenge. Nonesuch reveals some surprising facts about one of the world’s most celebrated scientists.

1. Spiders and satellites sparked his early curiosity in science

Were it not for the long, lonely walks from his childhood home in North London to primary school, Nurse might never have had the opportunity to wonder why spider webs were located where they were, or why plant leaves grew to different sizes in the shade and sunlight. In 1958, aged nine, he went running out into the street to watch Sputnik speed across the sky, which sparked a lifelong amateur interest in astronomy. This early curiosity would eventually lead him to answer one of the most significant questions about the nature of living organisms and how cells divide.

2. He’s far from a conventional academic

Nurse didn’t take to the academic system instinctively, failing French GCE at school six times and being turned down by Cambridge, Sussex and York universities as a result. He almost gave up experimental biology in favour of philosophy because of the often unrewarding demands of experiments, although these experiences toughened his resolve and his empathy for how students experience research today.

3. He sold the Socialist Workers Party newspaper as a student

During his time at university, Nurse met his wife Anne. Her influence, along with the 1960s climate of social activism, the Vietnam War and his family background, gave him the confidence to challenge prevailing ideas in society. Today, as head of Europe’s largest biomedical research centre, Nurse’s vision is one of ‘gentle anarchy’.

4. The woman he thought was his sister was actually his mother

When the US Department of Homeland Security challenged Nurse’s application for a green card, he discovered that his grandparents had brought him up as their own after his mother became pregnant aged 17. To this day, the blank space where his father’s name should be on his birth certificate remains a mystery.

5. In 1997, he single-handedly crashlanded an aeroplane

While flying in Oxfordshire, the undercarriage of Nurse’s plane jammed up so his propeller wouldn’t clear the ground; he was forced to make an emergency landing with no wheels down and with the engine off.

6. He sees science as a ‘liberalising and progressive force for humanity’

Nurse doesn’t shy away from challenging bureaucrats who stand in the way of scientific evidence: while President of the Rockefeller University of New York, he publicly criticised former US President George Bush for banning public funding for stem cell research, which Nurse said put science ‘under siege’.

7. And he thinks scientists should speak up

Nurse has long been a champion of the need for science to demonstrate its own worth, once saying: ‘We as scientists cost a lot of money – we have to justify what we do. We have to engage with politicians if we are to maintain support for science, which is for the public good and promotes the economy.’

Further information

For more pictures from the Chancellor's installation ceremony, please see our Flickr page.