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Science meets history at Adler Museum of Medicine

- Wits University

Exhibition celebrates the life and scientific journey of Nobel Laureate and alumnus Sydney Brenner.

Professor Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) was a molecular biologist best known for explaining how DNA encodes the message to make proteins, which are the building blocks of cells and ultimately of organism.

Themed Science meets history, celebrating the life and scientific journey of Sydney Brenner, the exhibition launch took place at the Adler Museum of Medicine in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits University.

The exhibition runs until 30 May 2024.

The exhibition marked five years since Brenner’s death in 2019 at the age of 92, and 10 years since the formal establishment of the Sydney Brenner Institute for Molecular Bioscience (SBIMB) at Wits – the only research institute worldwide to bear his name.

Sydney Brenner is a Wits alumnus with four degrees from Wits (1942 to 1951), and a Nobel Laurate. In 2002, Sydney Brenner and his colleagues Bob Horvitz and John Sulston received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death, using the nematode worm as their model organism.

Sydney Brenner Exhibition at the Adler Museum of Medicine at Wits from 9 to 30 April 2024

The exhibition was a collaboration between the SBIMB, the Adler Museum, and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) Library & Archives in the US, where Sydney Brenner first went in 1954, with which he had an enduring association, and to whom he donated his personal collections.

Ludmila (Mila) Pollock, the Executive Director of the CSHL Library & Archives, who has been responsible for digitizing many collections, including the personal collections of Sydney Brenner, attended the exhibition launch and contributed original materials for the exhibit.

Also in attendance were representatives from Wits who had supported the development and eventual establishment of the SBIMB in 2014. These included former Vice-Chancellor Emeritus Professor Loyiso Nongxa, with a special mention for the late Professor Belinda Bozzoli.

Philip Goelet represented the Sydney Brenner Charitable Trust, which supports SBIMB postdoctoral scholars.

Dr David Twesigomwe  and Dr Luicer Ingasia Olubayois are the first two beneficiaries of these fellowships and are based at the SBIMB, and co-hosted by the University of Edinburgh. 

Twesigomwe was also the MC at the exhibition launch.

Dr David Twesigomwe is a Sydney Brenner Charitable Trust postdoctoral fellow and was MC at the Sydney Brenner exhibition launch 600x300

Professor Lindelani Mnguni, Deputy Dean: Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Health Sciences, delivered the welcome address, opening with, “It’s nice to see evidence [of genetics] in Carla!” [Carla is Sydney Brenner’s daughter].

Mnguni said, “Sydney Brenner was one of us. His legacy lives on. We stand on the shoulders of giants – we teach what he found. We need to keep the legacy going.”

How a boy from Germiston went on to win the Nobel Prize

Brenner’s daughter, Carla Brenner Roach, the youngest of his three children and visiting from London, regaled the audience with entertaining, nostalgic, and insightful reminisces about her late father.

She recalled that her father “confounded expectations,” having learnt to read at four-years-old and that the Brenner laboratories worldwide had spawned no fewer than five Nobel Laureates.

Carla Brenner Roach and Philip Goelet SB Charitable Trust Sydney Brenner Exhibition Launch 600x300

Known as a “maverick scientist”, Sydney Brenner “never prepared for his talks” says his daughter, although, in his speech when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002, he said that “I believe a scientist must be judged by those who you impact” in reference to supporting “privileged minds from under-privileged circumstances.”

Speaking at the launch, Professor Michèle Ramsay, Director of the SBIMB, said that Brenner’s interest in genetics had been sparked at Wits, when he became fascinated with chromosomes and genes – "Although at that time it was a long time before he knew what a gene was," says Ramsay.

Prof Michele Ramsay SBIMB Director at Sydney Brenner Exhibition Launch 600x300

A prodigy who matriculated at the age of 14 from Germiston High School, Sydney Brenner was awarded a bursary to study medicine at Wits in 1942.

Ramsay says, “We are honoured to have Ms Renée Goosen, Principal of Germiston High School here tonight,” adding that a delegation had earlier toured Sydney Brenner’s high school in the East Rand of Gauteng. 

Very early in his studies at Wits, Sydney Brenner worked on the chromosomes of the elephant shrew, a small rodent, when completing his Honours and Master’s degrees. “He had two publications from that work and reprints from that work are in the collection here [at the Adler Museum],” says Ramsay.

After graduating from Wits, Sydney Brenner left South Africa in 1952. He went to the University of Oxford on a bursary to complete his DPhil. He later shared an office with Francis Crick, who with John Watson discovered the double helical structure of DNA – a finding that leveraged the research of Roslyn Franklin.

Ramsay says, “On 7 July 1960, Sydney sent a telegram to Berkley, California to his wife, which said ‘Experiment a resounding success! Returning Sunday 10th ‘. And we’re really grateful to Carla who brought the original telegram, which is on display.”

The ‘experiment’ was about the seminal work that Sydney Brenner and colleagues did in terms of discovering that the messenger RNA was the intermediate between the DNA and the protein.

Sydney Brenner, Crick and Watson were members of ‘the RNA Tie Club,’ an informal scientific club of select scientists who deciphered the genetic code explaining how proteins were synthesised from the information in genes. Six of these 'RNA Tie Club' members would go on to win a Nobel Prize.

Son of South Africa, son of Wits

In 1972, Wits awarded then 45-years-old Sydney Brenner an honorary doctorate. “Already then [Wits] saw that he was going to go on to do amazing things, and this [honorary degree] was an event that brought Sydney Brenner back to South Africa after a 16-year absence,” says Ramsay.

Brenner Roach said that South Africa and Singapore “meant the most to him.” He had inspired the field of molecular biology in both countries and, in 2003, was granted honorary citizenship of Singapore, which also named an orchid after him.

Symposium towards precision medicine in Africa and preserving medical history

A one-day research symposium preceded the exhibition and featured a scientific session, Exploring African genomic diversity and precision medicine applications and a session focused on the Medical Humanities titled, The importance and impact of preserving medical history through scientific exhibitions and archives.

Ramsay says that the SBIMB will publish two journal articles this year, both of which further emphasize diversity in Africa. One article focuses on microbiomes, and the other is developing a database of regulatory variants, which the SBIMB will also make available to the international scientific community.

The SBIMB has a vibrant genomics research community and two highlights this year include studies that emphasize diversity and novel discovery in Africa, says Ramsay.

One article focuses on the human gut microbiomes, and the other on developing a database of regulatory variants. The unique data from these studies will be available to the international scientific community.

Ramsay says, “We need to be responsible about sharing [our data] so that researchers globally can use the data collected in Africa to ultimately make difference to the health of the people of Africa, as we enter the era of precision medicine.”

Emphasizing the importance of museums and archives such as the Sydney Brenner collection at the Adler, Professor Richard Cooke, Chairman of the Board of the Adler Museum said that the Adler had had 8000 visitors in 2023.

In terms of integrating archives in education, Cooke asked, “How can we inspire our students? How can museums support the academic project?” To this end, the Wits MBBCh and BHS curricula are currently under review. These revisions will hopefully include a History of Medicine course for undergraduates.