Milton Wainwright, Ph.D.
(Prof. of Microbiology, Univ. of Sheffield)
3.7 – Aliens, Plagues, & Epidemics (9.8.11)
“I am British microbiologist, graduated from the University of Nottingham in botany and obtained my PhD from there in mycology and soil microbiology. After which, I went to Canada as a National Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellow, researching aspects of environmental microbiology. After my postdoctoral fellowship, In 1975 I was appointed to the University of Sheffield. I have been awarded honorary professorships from Cardiff and Buckingham Universities in the UK, King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, and from the Megunaroden Slavjanski Institute in the Republic of Macedonia. I was also made a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (FRAS), (2014), and a Distinguished Fellow of the Institute for the Study of Panspermia and Astroeconomics – Japan (ISPA) (2015).
My main research areas: a) astrobiology, particularly in relation to our recent research findings that microbes exist in space, and continually arriving to Earth from the cosmos, b) Alternatives to antibiotics for use against MRSA, c) the hypothesis that bacteria and other non-virus microbes cause cancer. I also research and publish on the history of Science, particularly showing that the idea of natural selection is not original to Darwin’s or Wallace’s theory. I have also written widely about the history of the discovery of penicillin and streptomycin.”
“My mother informed me that on the day I was born (23, February, 1950) it snowed and a Labour Government was elected. The second fact would have pleased nearly everyone in my birth place, the coal mining village of Fitzwilliam, in what was then the West Riding of Yorkshire. My father however, had long since deserted socialism having experienced the pork barrel politics of Hemsworth Council, but my mother remained an old fashioned, staunch Labourite to her death. Fitzwilliam was typical of many of the mining villages of the day which have all since lost their pits. It was grimy and bleak in winter and gas lights still weakly lit some of the streets. To me, the main saving grace of the village was its proximity to the countryside, and as I soon become a budding naturalist the joys of living within a mile or so of the woods and parkland of Nostell Priory soon began to dominate my life. Fitzwilliam, and the surrounding area, is mainly famous for producing sporting heroes. I knew of Geoff Boycott (Sir Geoffrey as he should be properly styled) and the footballing Knowles brothers Cyril, and Peter, who eventually became a Jehohova’s Witness and prematurely left the game. Dorothy Hyman, the famous runner was also born nearby as was the TV personality, Mike Parkinson.
My youth in Fitzwilliam was centred on a wonderfully stable family life and an exciting environment that always kept me interested. With friends, I would roam the fields and woods, often walking the ten or so miles to the countryside near Wentbridge and Kirk Smeaton. When not doing this, I would mess about around the pit top, finding discarded batteries and other electrical equipment to use to try and emulate Thomas Edison, one of my early science heroes. Life was indeed bliss at least from the first 11 years. I lived with my parents, 6 sisters and a brother in a reasonable sized council house. My father originally worked in the pits, but by the time I can remember him he was a school caretaker. My mother worked as a cleaner at the same school and also cleaned a local council office. Times were Spartan in many ways, for example on a number of occasions I went to school with a hole in one shoe, my holed thick woolly socks separated from the tarmac by only a layer of cardboard, fine when it was fine but soon dissolved when it rained!
These wonderful early days centred on spending as much time as possible in the countryside, walking long distances and above all collecting caterpillars and breeding butterflies and moths. I remember the day I first put a woolly bear caterpillar in a jam jar with a few dock leaves-my life as a biologist was set from that moment on. I became something of a celebrity in the village as parents, usually mothers, would appear at my door with their children holding a caterpillar or moth, which they hoped I could identify. I was soon also into poetry, and classical music. But I was far from a mummy’s boy and was fond of the knock about and near-dangerous adventures enjoyed by boys in the 1950s and early 60s.
The “disaster”, I mentioned above, came in 1961 when I passed for the local Grammar School and came across less simple maths and the dreaded French. I still remember my confusion when I had my first lesson in algebra-what were all these letters doing in a class on numbers? Similarly a foreign language was so foreign to us because, apart from a cousin of mine who went on a school trip to Ostend, no one (and I mean no one) I knew in those days had ever left the UK. My days in Grammar School were largely hell, as I faced the shame of being rock bottom in my classes in French and Maths. Later on, I was told that I would never become a scientist without at least a bare O-level pass. This, I eventually achieved by teaching myself using a Maths book I bought using my odd-job-money. I was however, often top in other subjects notably Biology and Chemistry and continued to enjoy English Literature, particularly the works of D.H. Lawrence.
The next absolutely all-important event in my life was meeting my wife Christine (nee Gough) a miner’s daughter from nearby Grimethorpe, of Grimethorpe Colliery band fame; she has provided the loving backbone to my life; without Chris and my wonderful daughter and son (Anna and Rob) my life could never have been so happy and fulfilled.
Perhaps because I was spending so much time catching up on Maths, I only just made it to University. I was again lucky to end up at Nottingham University, a place I had barely heard of before I arrived in the autumn of 1968, suitcase in hand gazing up at its imposing buildings. I had originally hoped to study Zoology (and then Lepidoptera), but I initially had to settle for Botany. In the end, I found Botany a wonderful broad subject and stayed with it to graduate with a First Class Honours Degree. A PhD, at Nottingham, studying the effects of fungicides on soil microbiology and biochemistry led me to a National Research Council of Canada Post Doctoral Fellowship at the Soil Research Institute in Ottawa, Canada. Chris and I met some good friends and had a wonderful year touring Ontario and the Northern US in our first car. It was here that we got our love of North America.
The science I did in Canada was not notable and although I could have applied for found jobs in Canada I decided instead to accept a lectureship in Microbial Ecology at the University of Sheffield, where I have remained since 1975. The first years in Sheffield were unhappy until that is, I started taking on research students who became friends and helped me to overcome the antagonism shown to me by some of the academic staff.
My research really took off in 2012 when I met and began working on panspermia with Chandra Wickramasinghe. Soon, Chandra and his wonderful wife Priya became good friends. Chandra is without a doubt one of the best minds in science and yet he has had to suffer decades of abuse (and even racism) for his work on the idea that life comes from space (which began in association with Sir Fred Hoyle). He is the most mild-mannered, civilized person I have ever known and has taken all the abuse he has had to suffer with remarkable good grace (he is a published poet and was brought up a Buddhist, both of which doubtless helped him).
I have seen many journeymen, who come nowhere close to the intellect and achievements of Chandra, prosper in science. It is a remarkable (and unforgiveable) fact that a scientist of Chandra’s standing and contribution to science has been overlooked by the Royal Society, especially when many lesser minds have been made Fellows of this august, but highly conservative, body.
Over the last two to three years we have been launching weather balloons to search for life in the stratosphere (around 30km) in relation to panspermia. Using a novel sampling technique, which avoids the possibility of contamination, we have sampled unusual non-earth like microscopic, biological entities which we claim are continually arriving to Earth form space. In this way we are confident that life does exist in space and possibly comes to Earth from, for example, Comets or the moons of Saturn and Jupiter.
So here, towards the end of my career I have been blessed (I mean this without any irony) with the wonderful opportunity to work on the question-does life exist in space and does it continually arrive from this source? I also remain active in researching the history of biology, notably antibiotics, the germ theory and the development of the theory of evolution. In short, I have had a wonderful life as an academic and the best may be yet to come.”