Revealed: The Nobel Prize winner Paul Nurse who discovered his sister was really his mother
12th December 2010
All his life, Professor Sir Paul Nurse has known that he was different from the rest of his family. It wasn’t only that he had been born so much later than his three siblings, or that he alone excelled academically. From the earliest age, his fascination with science was a defining characteristic, one neither his father, a mechanic at the Heinz food factory in Neasden, North-West London, nor his mother, a part-time cleaner, shared.
Wandering through the park as a child he would notice that the leaves were larger on plants growing in the shade. When Sputnik 2 was launched into orbit in 1957, he stood transfixed in the garden of the family home, watching the Soviet Union’s second satellite make its journey across the sky. As he grew older, he often wondered where his passion for trying to make sense of the world around him could have come from.
It is hardly surprising that Sir Paul was more intrigued by the quirks of his genetic make-up than most. As a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist who has just become president of the Royal Society – a fellowship of some of the world’s leading scientists – his life’s work has revolved around seeking to understand the role played by DNA.
So when he discovered by chance three years ago that he had been deceived about his true genetic identity, the irony was not lost on him.
‘I’ve always been interested in my own genetic make-up because I was always the odd one out in my family. But even though I’m an expert my family managed to keep my genetic origins secret from me for over half a century,’ he says, smiling wryly. ‘The people I thought were my parents weren’t my parents at all.’
The revelation came when Sir Paul, now 61, applied to the US Department of Homeland Security for a green card which would allow him permanent residence in the US. At the time he had been living in America for three years and was president of New York’s Rockefeller University, so when his application was turned down he was surprised. He was told there was a problem with the short-form version of his birth certificate, which did not contain the names of his parents, so he applied for a fuller version.
‘When it arrived my secretary asked me if I’d made a mistake with my mother’s name. I said, “Of course not.” She handed it to me and for the next few seconds I was totally dumbstruck.
‘I saw that next to the word “mother” was my sister Miriam’s name, and next to “father” was just a dash. I didn’t believe it at first: I assumed it was a bureaucratic mix-up.’
He did not immediately grasp the implications until his wife, Anne, suggested that perhaps his parents were really his grandparents.
‘I couldn’t ask my mother about it as she died a long time ago and my sister died early, too, of multiple sclerosis. Eventually though, I noticed that the birth certificate said I was born in my great-aunt’s house in Norwich, so I rang her daughter, who told me it was true: the woman I’d always known as my sister was my mother and my “parents” were my grandparents.
‘My great-aunt’s daughter had been sworn to secrecy as a child about what had happened. She told me my mother became pregnant at 18 in 1948 and was sent away to give birth, like someone in a novel by Dickens.
‘Her mother joined her there and later returned to the family home with her new “son”. She and my grandfather brought me up as their own to spare my mother the shame she would have suffered.’
Sitting in his plush new office at the Royal Society headquarters on Carlton House Terrace in London, which he intends to redecorate as there are ‘too many brown portraits’, Sir Paul is far from a stereotypical stuffy academic. His warm, approachable demeanour, boundless enthusiasm and infectious laugh make it easy to forget that he is Britain’s most important scientist, whose ground-breaking work on the way cells reproduce, change shape and spread around the body has put him at the forefront of the fight against cancer and has already led to new treatments.
His achievements are immense: from 1996 to 2002 he was director-general of Cancer Research UK, receiving a knighthood in 1999.
'I wasn’t aware of any clues that Miriam was my mother when I was growing up, but now, looking back, I can see that they were there'
Two years later he shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology with Timothy Hunt and Leland Hartwell for their discoveries about cell division. In 2003 he moved to America to take over at Rockefeller University, which he officially leaves in March next year.
He has also found time to acquire several daredevil hobbies, including piloting a biplane which he part-owns and riding a Kawasaki 500cc motorcycle. He also loves hill-walking.
Sir Paul’s openness is partly a deliberate tactic born of his belief that scientists have a responsibility to communicate with the public in an understandable way. In his new role, one of his most important tasks will be speaking out on behalf of British science, as well as trying to engage with ordinary people and attracting young people to the subject.
In talking honestly about his extraordinary family situation he is aware that he is giving science a much-needed human face. But he also has another, deeply personal reason for his frankness. ‘There was such a stigma attached to illegitimacy then, but thankfully my mother’s situation would never happen now. That’s why I speak about it – because I feel I owe it to her to remove the shame she was made to feel and put things right for her,’ he says.
His discovery of his true origins has thrown all the certainties of his life into confusion, but it has also made more explicable his sense of being ‘different’ from his siblings, all of whom left school at 16 while he went to university and then on to do a PhD. He is not angry at the deception over his true parents, but simply sad for Miriam. ‘I wasn’t aware of any clues that Miriam was my mother when I was growing up, but now, looking back, I can see that they were there,’ he says.
‘Miriam married when I was two-and-a-half and moved away to live with her husband, but she would come back to us every weekend. At the time I thought that was normal, but it isn’t really, is it? I thought she was visiting our parents but now I think she was visiting me. There’s a picture of her holding my hand on her wedding day, which must have been very poignant for her as it was the day she left me.
‘She went on to have three other children and I don’t think she ever told her husband about me. It was after her death that I learned she had pictures next to her bed of all four of her babies. Three were of her legitimate children. I was the fourth. It makes me feel sad to know that I can’t talk to her about it and ask her how she coped with her secret for all those years.
‘Of course, I wonder who my father was, and if he was interested in science, like me. I wonder what he looked like, and if I resemble him. It’s possible he was a serviceman, perhaps even American. I have a picture of me as a little boy wearing an airman’s hat which Miriam gave me, telling me it was a present from a friend, so perhaps that’s a clue? It’s something I will always wonder about, and it’s strange to know that I’ll never find out now.
I have to accept that.
‘I went to see my doctor for a check-up and he asked about my family history, so I told him my story. He said, “I hope you’re in therapy.” But actually, I don’t feel damaged by what I’ve learned. I was brought up nicely.
‘I’m very grateful to my grand-parents for rescuing me – plenty more children in my position were taken away and adopted by strangers. They did their best for me and for my mother. They weren’t well off, or academic, but they were always very supportive of me.’
Sir Paul, who has two daughters – Sarah, who works as a producer for ITV, and Emily, a physicist – with his wife, a social scientist, has since learned that both his grandparents were also illegitimate.
‘Tracing my lineage would be very difficult as there are no legitimate males in the family,’ he laughs. ‘I inherited the name Nurse twice through the maternal line in three generations.’ While all the main protagonists of the story are now dead, he has gained new half-brothers and sisters, whom he previously thought were nephews and nieces.
‘It’s quite nice at this stage in life,’ he says. ‘I did worry that telling them would be upsetting, so I waited 24 hours after finding out, but when I called them they were glad to know the truth.’
Sir Paul is currently in the process of moving all his belongings from New York to England, where he intends to divide his time between his family home in Oxfordshire and the flat he has been given at the Royal Society, the world’s oldest learned body, where he is taking over from the astrophysicist Professor Sir Martin Rees.
Sir Paul’s passion for his subject, combined with his charm, made him the ideal candidate.
‘I’m still working out what my role will be,’ he says, ‘but it’s a great honour to be elected by the fellows, who are all eminent scientists. It’s daunting to follow in the footsteps of former presidents like Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren.
‘In Britain, science is one of our real success stories, so I’m excited about moving back and helping to promote the work being done here. I think scientists have to have the people’s permission to operate. We have to explain our work and justify the money and faith which is given to us by the taxpayer.’
As the man who once lambasted Margaret Thatcher for doing ‘a good job of ruining British science’ and a supporter of the campaign to clone human embryos for stem cell research, Sir Paul is not afraid of courting controversy. ‘One of the Royal Society’s key roles is to advise the Government on policies involving science, and politics and science don’t always match,’ he says.
‘Politicians sometimes want to slant the facts to suit their argument, for example, by denying the existence of climate change. I believe it’s important to be as objective as possible and tell it like it is.
‘The other key area for me is education. It’s crucial that as citizens we understand how to recognise scientific evidence. When the row over the MMR jab happened it was a case of anecdotal evidence overcoming the weight of science, which showed that the jab was safe and worked.
‘Children need to be taught to think scientifically so they can tell the difference between what should and shouldn’t be taken seriously.’
As well as the presidency of the Royal Society, Sir Paul will become the first director and chief executive of the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation in January. Funded by major UK science trusts, this state-of-the-art biomedical centre near St Pancras station will co-ordinate British research on human health and seek new ways to treat common conditions such as cancer and heart disease.
‘I still run my research lab, too. It’s currently in New York but most of the team are transferring to Britain, so it’s a busy and exciting time,’ he says. ‘My daughters laugh at me because of my enthusiasm for everything but I couldn’t do all that I do without it.’
For a man dedicated to knowing as much as possible about the world it is frustrating that he will never know the origins of all that enthusiasm. With just a faint trace of sadness in his eyes, he smiles and says: ‘I always say now that I’d be a good genealogy project for someone.’