Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2005

Intriguing Biography of a Happy Realist

William Bruneau

No Ordinary Mike: Michael Smith, Nobel Laureate

Eric Damer & Caroline Astell. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2004; 264 pp; ISBN: 1-55380-014-1, paper $24.95 CA.
Historical statistics show biography is nearly as popular in the early 2000s as it was a century ago. Academics now think the field respectable and the public find it easier to understand biography than they do works in more abstract fields. Besides, biographers no longer moralize quite so much as they did before 1914. We are more sceptical than our Edwardian forebears. We think heroism, intellectual heroism included, is still possible. But we find it is rarer than it once was.

We ask biographers to let readers make their own critical inferences about the effects on subjects' lives of power, social structure, institutional politics, family history and money. Above all, we expect this of the books about "famous" people.1 In academe, few are so instantly famous as Nobel Prize holders. There are a dozen or so Canadian winners, nearly all in the natural sciences or in economics, some with only moderately close connections to Canada.2 There are few substantial written discussions of these men, certainly none so thorough as No Ordinary Mike, and this lacuna may be explained by the risks involved in writing argumentatively about scientific "heroes."

It would have been easy to write a congratulatory work, but Eric Damer and Carolyn Astell's work on Michael Smith (1932-2000) gives us the best of both the old and the new biographical traditions.3 On one hand, the book celebrates the triumph of a kindly character, a sharp scientific intelligence with a canny mind for business. On the other, No Ordinary Mike takes us into the bracing air of hard science (the final chapter is devoted to Smith's discovery of site-directed mutagenesis, and resisted this reviewer's best efforts at decryption).

In its opening chapters, the book relies on a long view of British social history (Smith's origins in an ambitious lower-middle-class Blackpool family in the 1930s and 1940s, and his luck in gaining access to a good education at state-supported Arnold Grammar School and Manchester University). The history is as bracing as the science.

Damer and Astell write well. Rarely do we feel an unresolved conflict in argument. The authors show that Smith could be a "nice guy" - a phrase that occurs at least once in the text (he found it very hard to discipline employees or graduate students) - yet a tough negotiator with his university, his family, his preferred granting agencies and in the stock market. By mid-book, we might even want to forgive him for being too much in the lab and too little with his kids and to agree, even if only for a moment, how "natural" it was that Smith should modify his youthful egalitarianism and radical "democratic" inclinations.

Damer and Astell thus make a contribution by pointing to contradictions in Smith's life and work and allowing readers to decide for themselves how Smith could unite those contradictions in one life, one career and one trajectory.

Another example: the first quarter of the book takes us to Smith's doctoral defence at Manchester in 1956, and his "fortuitous" hiring at Gordon Shrum's B.C. Research Council under the supervision of yet another future Nobel winner, Har Gobind Khorana. Smith and Khorana came from poor backgrounds and had done well, as Damer and Astell put it, incidentally giving an example of the older biographical tradition.

Meanwhile, Khorana and Smith found their home societies unfriendly to their scientific work, and "had" to move to Canada or to the United States (as Khorana finally did). The accident of their intellectual gifts, and the force of social structure, played parts in both lives. In both, the University of British Columbia's contribution was of marginal importance in deciding where their science would go. This point is worth underlining, as university administrators are wont to make claims for the uniquely science-friendly "environment" they can or should provide, sometimes at almost unbearable expense to the rest of the academic community. Yet the evidence is that community and open decision-making were crucial in the construction of Smith's and Khorana's laboratories, not just funding or physical space.

It was by no means "natural" or automatic that Smith "got somewhere." By the end of No Ordinary Mike we begin to see how much he owed to the economics of big science, to the growth of a trans-Atlantic intellectual scientific community, to the rise of massive public and private science funding, to his own political insight and to his own scientific intelligence. Although the Nobel Prize depended mostly on the last of these things, one cannot deny the others.

Through the 1960s, Smith had few official teaching functions at UBC. He was consumed with research. We are told that "One of Mike's most significant scientific contributions was to help develop the phosphodiester method of synthesizing olignucleotides." This reviewer spent a pleasant hour trying to understand the page on which this sentence occurs, with the help of a glossary at the end of the book, but did not succeed. But the authors discussion of the politics of UBC's biochemistry department versus the faculty of medicine makes good sense anyway. It succeeds by describing the difficult balance between biochemistry as a science, and biochemistry as a necessary element in medical training. UBC was, then as later, under pressure to fund medicine well, even at the expense of biochemistry as a freestanding department. Smith in the 1970s was endlessly doing administration and university politics, not just DNA work.

By the end of his life Smith had joined a high-flying cadre of commercially successful academic entrepreneurs at UBC and at an international level. He never repudiated his early commitment to a democratic style of university governance, but he was also not a sustained activist in the university senate, or (apart from a brief period on the personnel committee) in the faculty association. Indeed, by the 1990s he did not often question the common-law marriage between the market economy and the university. He had become an activist in quite a different sense.

At page 196, the authors tell us that "Mike's lobbying - for biomedical research in general and genomics in particular - persisted and he had powerful allies in the business community." And at page 123, "it is no great surprise to learn that Smith's discoveries had attracted in 1981 the attention of Wall Street biotechnology investors."

Smith shortly engaged himself in the creation of a biotechnology company (Zymos) based in Seattle. Damer and Astell give a persuasive explanation for this key turn in Smith's life: he liked the idea of having more personal funds to dispose of - Zymos made him a millionaire; he wanted to test his theoretical and practical understandings in science; and he hoped for funding in his own laboratories that would compete with American lab funding.

Smith was, in short, a happy realist. More than a decade after his first serious ventures into the world of scientific capitalism, Smith discovered that the Canada Foundation for Innovation, beginning in 1997, would fund only 40 per cent of infrastructure costs for the expensive work he and his colleagues did in his biotechnology lab at UBC and in several other connected laboratories. That meant finding money in the public, quasi-public and private sectors to match the CFI portion. For Smith was above all "an uncommon scientist who used synthetic organic chemistry to create an extraordinarily powerful tool ... used by biologists worldwide" (p. 11, from a foreword by R.J. Roberts, 1993 Nobel Prize, medicine). The creation and re-creation of scientific "tools," particularly tools that are in constant use for basic science (in a sense, tools like this are basic science), are bound to cost a good deal of money.

The value of Smith's research lay not only in its contribution to fundamental scientific understanding, but also in its subsequent applications to agriculture, medicine and other life sciences. But for those of us who live the teaching-research life, Smith's career puts a spotlight on crucial changes in the finance and control of the university and in the organization of science worldwide.

Smith was many things, justifiably earning recognition and rewards of many kinds before and after his Nobel Prize. The elements of his life fit together reasonably well. He was a happy, informal, attractively forthcoming person, only occasionally assailed by doubt or depression. It makes sense as biography.

But Damer and Astell leave us with many unanswered questions. The authors have not explored the inner workings of Smith's family life in anything like the depth they gave to his public scientific and administrative work. But for the history of universities in Canada, this is less important than the unanswered questions raised elsewhere by the authors clear descriptions. Reconsider for a moment the massive financial and political forces that kept Smith's work and laboratories going. At a time when arts and social science funding were entering the longest decline in Canadian history (1973 to the present), Smith's laboratories attracted massive fiscal support inside and outside the university, from both private and public sources.

Why was there never any serious discussion at UBC of the real, long-term, campus-wide cost of big science? The result may have been a reaffirmation of UBC's commitment to it, but ... that discussion never occurred. Accountability in Smith's work was to federal and sometimes to private authorities, but in truth, he must have exercised an extraordinary degree of autonomy, conferred by his level of funding. But we are unsure at the end of the book, as these kinds of questions were not tackled. Damer's preface (the book has one foreword and two prefaces - an unusual luxury) explicitly invites more work on Smith, and one can well understand why.

On some accounts, nearly everything that Smith did for science has paid off at UBC, in the province and in the country. As this book shows, there's more to it than that.

William Bruneau is professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and a member of CAUT's Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee.


1 For an accessible, but mildly sceptical treatment of the Nobel Prize and its effects on academic life, see James Glanz, "Too Many Eyes on the Prize," New York Times Magazine, 2000 Oct. 8, accessed 2004 December 20 at: 20001008mag-wwln.html. For a debunking, and possibly muckraking biography of a well-known Nobel Prize winner, see Ray Monk's work on Bertrand Russell (London: Jonathan Cape, 1992-2000; 2 volumes).

2 A list of Canadian winners in the natural sciences, presented without explanation, is at

3 Harry Black, Canada and the Nobel Prize: Biographies, Portraits and Fascinating Facts (Markham, Ontario: Pembroke Publishers Ltd., 2002), and Jon Bradley's review thereof in Canadian Social Studies, 38, 3 (2004). Bradley suggests that Harry Black has written too much in the Edwardian vein, and with too little scepticism: "True, the discoveries of some of these folks ... are indeed advanced, theoretical and a trifle difficult for the average lay person to comprehend. However, this challenging and instructional role should have been a major thrust of this book and, in this reviewer's eyes, a wonderful opportunity was missed by not attempting to communicate in everyday language the achievements, accomplishments and impact of these many and varied discoveries." Damer and Astell do not make these mistakes.