Two-Time Nobel Prize Winner Frederick Sanger, an Agnostic, Dies

Frederick Sanger, the two-time Nobel Prize winner, died on Tuesday at the age of 95:

It was remarkable what he accomplished in his career:

Dr. Sanger won his first Nobel Prize, in chemistry, in 1958 for showing how amino acids link together to form insulin. The discovery gave scientists the tools to analyze any protein in the body.

In 1980 he received his second Nobel, also in chemistry, for inventing a method of “reading” the molecular letters that make up the genetic code. This discovery was crucial to the development of biotechnology drugs and provided the basic tool kit for decoding the entire human genome two decades later.

The reason I bring this up is because the New York Times included an interesting tidbit in his obituary:

… Raised as a Quaker, he was a conscientious objector on religious grounds during World War II and remained at Cambridge in those years to work on his doctorate, which he received in 1943.

Later in life, however, he became an agnostic, saying he lacked hard evidence to support his religious beliefs.

“In science, you have to be so careful about truth,” he said. “You are studying truth and have to prove everything. I found that it was difficult to believe all the things associated with religion.

That seems to be the case quite often in fields where the ability to think critically and back up your ideas with solid evidence are premium requirements for success.

(Thanks to Masada for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • MineApostasy

    Going into theoretical physics and philosophy at university was certainly the death knell of any religious beliefs I had clung to. When one spends their time searching for why and how the concept of who just doesn’t cut it any more.

  • diogeneslamp0

    He was a great scientist. So much of molecular biology is built on his work. I would admire him no matter what his religious beliefs were.

    • Tiny Tim

      So he was a Quaker during the war…which saved his ass…but after that passed he questioned his beliefs?

      Got it.

      • eonL5

        Ooh. Snarky AND presumptuous. Got it.

        • pRinzler

          Standard operating procedure isn’t it? Assume the worst on no evidence.

      • http://hauntedtimber.wordpress.com/ timberwraith

        The Quakers have some pretty darned great values/beliefs around non-violence and even religion, for that matter.

        You can stop believing in the supernatural aspects of your particular religion but still hold true to the values and/or cultural practices therein. You know that there are quite a few Jewish atheists, yes? Even Richard Dawkins identifies as a kind of cultural Anglican:

        I ask him about this. ‘I’m kind of grateful to the Anglican tradition,’ he admits, ‘for its benign tolerance. I sort of suspect that many who profess Anglicanism probably don’t believe any of it at all in any case vaguely enjoy, as I do… I suppose I’m a cultural Anglican and I see evensong in a country church through much the same eyes as I see a village cricket match on the village green. I have a certain love for it.’ Would he ever go into a church? ‘Well yes, maybe I would.’

      • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

        If you are born into religion, it can take many years to transition into atheism, even for a very intelligent, rational person. Parts of the brain critical to reasoning are still developing well past the point where people normally enter military service.

      • https://twitter.com/#!/OffensivAtheist bismarket

        That happens quite a lot as people mature.

  • Gehennah

    I wish we had a lot more people like him. People who invest their lives into making discoveries that help man kind.

    • invivoMark

      There are a lot of people like him. Too many, in fact – the job market in making such discoveries is overcrowded.

      Sanger was remarkable in many ways, to be sure. He was incredibly insightful and had a drive to learn and to solve puzzles. He also had money. When research money was tight in the UK, he invested his family’s money into his research.

      We could have a thousand more Sangers in the research world right now if we only invested the money to make basic science research a reasonable career option.

      • Gehennah

        Agreed. Unfortunately unless there is immediate profit to be gained, you can’t get private businesses to invest in it, and government grants always get mud thrown at it by the conservatives that want it to be a purely private sector.

      • baal

        We have more scientists than jobs for them, yes. There are two numbers there. We could right size scientist production or we could fund more research!

        I’ve not seen a ton of econ. papers on the net benefits of science spending but the few I did see all suggested the stimulative effect of the new discoveries (DVDs, cell phones, camera’s in your cell phones etc) is tremendous.

        • invivoMark

          I agree. I have seen several economics papers suggesting that science is a fantastic economic investment, but even from fundamentals it isn’t hard to understand. An economy with a finite amount of resources can only grow either by improving infrastructure or through innovations. And all modern innovations ultimately owe their existence to investment in basic science.

          We can only improve our infrastructure so much, so unless we invest in basic science, our economy eventually will stagnate.

    • pRinzler

      About the only other thing that could compete would be bringing joy into people’s lives via the arts, comedy, etc.

  • RedneckCryonicist

    So basically Sanger woke up one morning and poof! he decided from then on that his life had no meaning or purpose, by the standards of christian theology.

    He seems to have handled that trauma remarkably well.

  • invivoMark

    Thank you, Dr. Sanger! I used your DNA sequencing technique last summer! Without you, my cancer research would be much, much more difficult!

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    Star-dust to star-dust, man.

  • Quintin van Zuijlen

    To realize that I’d just learnt about Sanger’s DNA-sequencing method last monday and immediately saw the brilliance of it is a testament to his own brilliance. He wil undoubtedly be sorely missed.

  • Drakk

    The world is diminished in your absence, Doctor. Thank you for all you’ve given us.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/OffensivAtheist bismarket

    A sad loss for everyone but we can be happy that he lived at all as his life will benefit Humanity for as long as it continues to exist. If he had been forced to fight & possibly die in WW2 his insights may have been a long time coming forcing countless people to endure more misery than necessary.


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