Michael Smith: The Person

By Howard Akler

Michael Smith was born in Blackpool, a seaside resort on the northwest coast of England, in 1932. His parents were working class. His father, Rowland, was a market gardener who specialized in chrysanthemums, and his mother, Mary Agnes, ran a boarding house. She attended church each week and sent young Mike to Sunday School. He later noted that his “only prizes from the Sunday School were for attendance, so I presume my atheism, which developed when I left home to attend university, although latent, was discernible.”

Mike grew up in the shadow of World War II. German planes regularly bombed targets in nearby Manchester. One night, when Mike was home alone with his younger brother Robin, a sortie tried to blow up a factory behind their house. He recalled that bombs landed on either side of their home. 

A more socially-significant `bomb’ landed in 1944: a massive reform of England’s regressive education system. Up until this point, middle school was mostly for the upper class; children from poor families often dropped out in their early teens in order to earn money to help their families. The reforms established child labour laws, raised the drop-out age in schools to 15, and, most importantly for Mike, provided scholarships to students of limited means. 

He was enrolled at the Arnold School, north west of Manchester, where he was an unremarkable student. Teenaged Mike was shy, with a noticeable overbite that prompted sneers from his fellow classmates. His parents sent him to the dentist, who suggested the Boy Scouts as a way of building up Mike’s confidence. He became an avid hiker and camper, and developed life-long love for the outdoors.

Despite being nothing more than a B student, Mike completed his PhD in chemistry from University of Manchester in 1956. His love of the outdoors lead him to join a University of British Columbia lab run by a rising young biochemist named Har Gobind Khorana. Khorana, himself a future Nobel winner (1968, Physiology), specialized in the study of nucleic acids, large molecules that help determine the inherited characteristics of every living thing. The best known of these is deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which encodes the information cells need to make proteins, the building blocks of life. Just three years earlier, Cambridge scientists James Watson and Francis Crick detailed DNA’s double-helix structure. It was an exciting time in the field of molecular biology.

Mike’s personal life flourished as much as his professional one. In 1960, he married Helen Christie, a Vancouver native. His three children, Tom, Ian, and Wendy, were born over the next five years. After becoming a Canadian citizen in 1963, he was named an associate professor at UBC’s Department of Biochemistry in 1964, and received his full professorship six years later. Along the way, he was awarded numerous grants for the foundational research that would eventually lead him to the Nobel Prize in 1993.

On October 12, the night before the Nobel announcement, Mike was out celebrating his daughter Wendy’s 29th birthday. He had had a few martinis and came home, took out his hearing aids, and fell into a deep sleep. Mike woke up late the next morning and turned on the radio to learn the score of the Blue Jays game. Instead, he discovered he had won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The media attention was intense; the oddest experience for Mike — a man known for his baggy sweaters, ratty pants and Birkenstocks over black socks — was his appearance on the cover of the Style section of the Vancouver Sun.

He flew 12 guests to the awards ceremony in Stockholm, including his children, Helen (from whom he separated in 1983), his new partner, Elizabeth Raines, and several colleagues. In his acceptance speech, Mike spoke movingly of our planet’s future, of the impact humans are having on biodiversity, and his idea for a new prize in environmental sustainability. Always a believer in the role of science in society, he spent this rest of his life speaking with politicians and business leaders about the need for funding new research. 

Mike Smith died in 2000, from a rare blood disorder. After his death, one photo that made the rounds showed him in a shirt made after his return from Sweden. It read:         

      How to Win a Nobel Prize (A Media Guide)

              1. Sleep in the Nude

              2. Have a Low IQ

              3. Wear Birkenstocks