ENGLAND’S LOSS, BC’s GAIN
Born into a working-class family in Blackpool, England, he went to school on scholarships, receiving his PhD in chemistry. Of that time he said: “I was shy and moody, and probably quite hard to understand.” Having obtained a fellowship to the University of British Columbia, he arrived inVancouver in 1956, and stayed until his death in 2000. Along the way, he discovered how to form mutated genes by rearranging the small molecules from which they are made. This gave scientists the precise tool they needed to develop organisms with special qualities, and to correct bad mutations that cause diseases such as cancer. In 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry. He donated his Nobel winnings to schizophrenia research, and to the advancement of Canadian women in science.
Born during a period when many families were experiencing hardship because of the Depression, Michael’s family was not hit as hard as others, particularly because they ran a market-garden business and had steady access to food. Even if there were few presents for birthdays and other holidays, Michael was relatively untouched by hunger and its accompanying stresses.
While his parent’s were supportive of Micheal’s learning, his home town, Blackpool, was quite cut off from the world of elite schools and expectations of higher education. The school Michael attended in town did not lend itself well to creating the challenging and supportive environment that allowed young minds to intellectually flourish. Also acting as a barrier were the fees attached to secondary schooling; regardless of aptitude or interest, youth of different classes were channeled along very different paths based on their parent’s ability to pay.
This reality was one that Michael faced at age 11. He sat and wrote the tests that determined which path he was to take—stay and complete his elementary education, leaving soon after to work, or move on to a more elite institution, covered by a scholarship.
His results were strong enough to land him an opportunity to continue on to grammar school, but the choice was a difficult one. It meant leaving all of his friends behind and entering into a world of ‘snobbery’, populated by the children of the wealthy elite. He was interested in the school his cousin had attended, but his mother wanted him to consider another, the most prestigious in the area.
With her holding firm to her position on the matter, Michael relented and enrolled, becoming one of the first two students from his school to attend.
The time spent there was socially painful, and he did not fit in. The saving grace was two connections –one with the school’s science teacher and one with the headmaster’s wife—that provided enough support for him to carry through with his intellectual development. These relationships also gently eased him into the world he now found himself in and he began to develop an expanded world view; not rejecting his past life, but rather finding the tools to navigate a new one. Slowly, Michael began to grow more comfortable and other students and teachers responded in kind.
He did well enough in his studies to secure a scholarship to cover his university education, but was unable to attend the two top schools, Cambridge and Oxford, because of his poor language marks. However, the University of Manchester was an alternative that made a perfect fit because of their strong Department of Chemistry.
Although he did not graduate at the top of his class, Michael received encouragement to enroll in the PhD program, which he completed in 1956. Soon after, looking for his next move, he determined that the University of British Columbia offered him the best opportunity; initially on a temporary basis, but for what was to be the rest of his life.
What followed was a highly successful career that saw him acting as founding Director of the Biotechnology Laboratory, founding Scientific Leader of the Protein Engineering Network Centers of Excellence, and founding Director of the Genome Sequencing Center at the BC Cancer Research Agency. In 1993 a Nobel Prize that recognized his work on DNA sequencing, an honor he made sure to share with the large number of graduate students and junior researchers; he paid their expenses to join him when he accepted the prize, which he later donated to help fund various programs.
Michael Smith Foundation
Although Michael Smith passed away in 2000, his name is carried on through the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research which was established in 2001, following collaboration between various experts in the field and a funding commitment from the Government of British Columbia. The Foundation continues to work as a funding agent for important health-related projects, and as a site that brings together members of many communities, united by their desire to further advance health and health-research in British Columbia.