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Sydney Brenner: Nobel laureate and molecular biologist who specialised in comparative genomics

BMJ 2019; 365 doi: (Published 30 April 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;365:l1976
  1. Barbara Kermode-Scott
  1. Comox, Canada
  1. kermodeb{at}
Andrew Cutraro/Redux Eyevine

When 92 year old Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner died in Singapore in April, media outlets worldwide published the news. Brenner was honoured as a hero, a giant in science, a founding father of modern biology, and a pioneer of molecular genetics. The South African scientist and physician certainly inspired copious headlines during his seven decade career for his achievements. After all, Brenner had helped decipher the genetic code. His trailblazing scientific discoveries have improved our understanding of the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cancer, neurogenerative disorders, cardiovascular disease, and AIDS. Brenner’s research, his early and active role in the Human Genome Project, and his mentoring of so many younger scientists changed science and medicine globally.

Early life and career

Sydney Brenner was born in Germiston, a small town near Johannesburg. His parents, Morris and Lena, were Jewish immigrants to South Africa. Morris was Lithuanian, and Lena was Latvian. Their son grew up in rooms behind his father’s shoe repair shop. Morris never learnt to read or write, but he did speak five languages—English, Yiddish, Russian, Afrikaans, and Zulu. Sydney Brenner learned to read at the age of 3. One of his father’s customers, a Miss Walkinshaw, saw the young boy …

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