Press release

Sanger's scientific legacy saved by Wellcome Trust

The laboratory notebooks of double Nobel Prize winner and eminent scientist Fred Sanger have been safeguarded thanks to the commitment of funding from the Wellcome Trust.

The notebooks form part of the Biochemical Society's archive, which has recently received the 100th Wellcome Trust Research Resources in Medical History award to catalogue its materials to professional standards making them more widely available to the public and on the web.

As an extremely important snapshot of science history, Sanger's laboratory notebooks from 1944-1981 provide a full record of his ground-breaking experiments of sequencing and structure of proteins, notably insulin, which earned him his first Nobel prize in 1958; and on the sequencing of nucleic acids, for which Sanger was awarded his second Nobel prize in 1980.

Sanger made the generous donation of his personal notebooks to the Biochemical Society in May 2005. Dr John Lagnado, Honorary Archivist at the Biochemical Society, who collected the materials from Sanger's home, explains:

"Sanger wrote a short letter to the Biochemical Society in which he explained that he had found a note in his papers written to himself as a reminder his promise to donate his notebooks to the Society, at the time he retired. Shortly after receiving this I drove to his home in Cambridgeshire to collect the notebooks from his attic. When I arrived back that evening, I had a quick bite and spent most of that night and the following day poring over this incredible treasure trove."

The materials, consisting of his 35 complete laboratory notebooks, reveal how focused Sanger was throughout his research with moments of excitement and disappointment concerning his results – remarks such as "this was a total waste of time…will start again" were typical.

The Sanger materials, alongside the rest of the Biochemical Society's archive, have to date been stored at the University of London Library Depository in Egham, Surrey. Plans are now underway to catalogue the archive to make it accessible to researchers for the first time; it will eventually be housed in the Wellcome Library.

"Although the archive will still remain the property of the Biochemical Society, housing the materials in the Wellcome Library will allow the public more access to these important materials," explains Clare Matterson, Director of Medicine, Society and History at the Wellcome Trust. "Sanger's work has made him one of the most productive and remarkable biochemists of our time. His notebooks add to the Wellcome Library's already extensive collection of important scientific papers, including those of Francis Crick, making it one of the world's finest resources for the history of medicine."

Dr Chris Kirk, the Chief Executive of the Biochemical Society said:

"We are absolutely delighted to have been awarded this grant to fully catalogue and conserve the Society's archive, making it available through the Wellcome Library. Our records cover the birth of modern biochemistry in the UK and record some of the most important developments of the subject during the past hundred years, the most significant of these being the notebooks of Fred Sanger. It is wonderful to know that these will now be available to scientists, historians and the public for generations to follow."

Fred Sanger is arguably the father of genomics, and he and his colleagues developed many of the techniques still used in genomic biology to this day. His research team produced the first DNA whole genome sequence, for a virus called 'phiX174', which grows in bacteria. The techniques he developed provided the platform for the Human Genome Project, which was led in the UK by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. The Institute, founded by John Sulston, was named after Sanger - when asked if his name might be used, he agreed, adding: "It had better be good".

His method, first published in 1977, remains the major technique used today. His discovery – which he would call the work of a team – has had a huge impact on science and society, allowing us to develop a deeper understanding of our genetic make up, and factors affecting our predisposition to certain diseases.