Views & Reviews In and Out of Hospital

Talented oldsters

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 14 December 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e8459
  1. James Owen Drife, emeritus professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, Leeds
  1. J.O.Drife{at}

Near my former office is a blue plaque commemorating the Braggs, father and son. In 1913, William Bragg, professor of physics at Leeds, built a spectrometer after his student son Lawrence had a flash of insight into the nature of x rays. Together, “working furiously all through the summer,” they founded the science of x ray spectroscopy.

Two years later they won the Nobel prize. Lawrence was 25 and remains the youngest ever laureate, though four other physicists have won at the age of 31. Albert Einstein, who received his prize at 33, reportedly once said, “a person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so.”

If he said that, he was wrong. William Bragg had been an inspiring teacher, but his research career did not begin until he was over 40. And the stereotype of youthful brilliance has changed. The average age of those who win a physics Nobel prize is now 66 and the big ideas no longer come early. A recent analysis in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “great achievement by age 40 occurs in only 19% of cases.”1

Medicine is no different. Frederick Banting, discoverer of insulin, was 32 when he won in 1923 but John Gurdon, the 2012 prize winner, is 79. The mean age of those who make major discoveries in medical science, according to the analysis, is 50. This seems to apply not only to laureates like Robert Edwards, the pioneer of in vitro fertilisation who was 53 when the first test tube baby was born, but also to others like Ian Donald, who was aged 48 when his seminal paper on ultrasound was published.

Nevertheless, doctors still tend to regard research as a youthful phase, like puberty, that we pass through on our way to becoming well rounded practitioners. Listening to students or trainees talking about their work is a stimulating experience, but few established doctors have the chance to do so now that the orbits of consultants and trainees rarely coincide.

In recent years NHS research has been transformed from a cottage industry into a vibrant organisation, the National Institute for Health Research, which, as I just discovered at their annual trainees meeting, nurtures talented youngsters. What about talented oldsters, I wonder? Are there medical William Braggs who missed out but want a research life after 40? Without their Lawrence-like registrars, is there a way to engage them?


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e8459