BBC web pages‎ > ‎

Sir Paul Nurse: A Profile

14th March 2002
Apart from their universally-recognised genius, Nobel Prize winners are an indefinable lot. Sir Winston Churchill's writings were fuelled by brandy, cigars and frequent cat naps. Albert Einstein's wardrobe contained identical sets of clothes, freeing the great man's brain from having to decide what to wear. Marie Curie almost certainly died after being exposed to the healing radiation which she laboured for years to understand.

Sir Paul Nurse, Joint Director General of Cancer Research UK and winner, together with fellow Britain Tim Hunt and the American Leland Hartwell, of the 2001 Medicine Prize, is every bit as quirky as his eminent predecessors.


In his fifties, he is an unlikely-looking scientist. Eschewing the lab coat and slide-rule image, his greying hair gives him the aura of an ageing rock star (he looks uncannily like the actor Robin Williams) and he enjoys a beer down the pub with his colleagues. He is, according to the Sun, "the David Beckham of science".

Asked what he would do with his share of the million dollar prize-money, he declared, "I know it's the male menopause, but I love my Kawasaki motorbike. I'm planning to buy an even bigger one." But, when he is not piloting a glider, indulging his love of astronomy or tearing up the tarmac, Sir Paul is at the very front line of the fight against one of the world's biggest killers, cancer.

His work, which started with postgraduate experiments on yeast and led to the discovery of the gene which controls cell division, has brought him a world-wide reputation second to none, but his background is anything but glamorous.

Born in Norwich, he was brought up in Neasden, north London. An eighth birthday present of a telescope began his fascination with science and he graduated in Biology from Birmingham University, the first of his family to go to university.

"I could have gone into industry and been a multi-millionaire by now", Sir Paul once admitted, "but I wanted to be at the cutting edge of research, helping to save lives without the constraint of the market."


Thanks to his ground-breaking research, mainly conducted in the 1980s, he joined the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) in 1996, doubling its funding in five years. Putting his money where his mouth his, he once gave a speech at a conference dressed in a 1970s-style blue corduroy suit which he had just bought from an ICRF shop.

Early in 2002 the ICRF and The Cancer Research Fund joined forces, becoming Cancer Research UK. Like his fellow Joint Director, Prof Gordon McVie, Sir Paul Nurse is a heavy hitter, unafraid of courting controversy.

In this spirit, he has lambasted Margaret Thatcher for doing "a good job of ruining British science", and has also lent strong support to the campaign to clone human embryos for stem cell research.

Sir Paul Nurse's discoveries and the leadership qualities which have galvanised his research team, have already led to new treatments and medicines for cancer. The ultimate goal of conquering the disease may be some way in the distance but, thanks to this unconventional Nobel Laureate, there is every hope that it will, one day, be reached.

Caroline Frost

Further Links:

BBC News Online
Report on Nurse winning the 2001 Nobel Prize

Nobel Prize in Medicine 2001
Video clips and excerpts from one of Nurse's speeches

Scientific American
Interview with Sir Paul Nurse

Cancer Research UK
Sir Paul Nurse's research organisation