Michael Smith was a philanthropic atheist who was fond of Sibelius' music and reading the Manchester Guardian. He was also a chemist and molecular biologist who shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry with Kary B. Mullis in 1993 "for his fundamental contributions to the establishment of oligonucleiotide-based, site-directed mutagenesis and its development for protein studies."

Born in 1932 in Lancashire, the have-not region of England, Michael Smith grew up in a working class world populated largely by coal miners and factory workers with rough manners and a dialect considered comical and uncouth. By passing an examination at the age of eleven he qualified for a grammar school that would prepare him for university entrance. As the son of a market gardener, Smith was keenly aware of his lower social status when he entered an elite school. He emerged from his seven-year ordeal with a deep-rooted social insecurity and a first-rate education. Smith's writing skills made him an expert in drawing up grant proposals-an invaluable asset in the operation of a science laboratory. Smith's ability in the sciences qualified him for Cambridge, but he did not have the required Latin credit. He went instead to nearby Manchester where his work was less than brilliant. With a second-class degree, he was admitted into the doctoral program and completed the degree with the all-too-familiar agony caused by an absentee and otherwise uncooperative dissertation supervisor. Possibly that experience accounted for his conscientiousness when he became a supervisor to others.

Aided by years of publicly-funded education in Britain, Smith became part of the brain drain from England when he was recruited to UBC at the urging of Har Gobind Khorana in 1956. Khorana was a Nobel Prize-winning chemist who taught him the organic chemistry of biological molecules which make up DNA. Smith planned a year's stay in Canada but fell in love with Vancouver and stayed there for the rest of his life, except for a brief period when he followed Khorana to Wisconsin after UBC wouldn't accept Khorana's research. Smith launched UBC's internationally acclaimed Biotechnology Laboratory and became a powerful advocate for science, influencing national policy and helping to establish Canada's Genome Sciences Centre; and he became responsible for training future scientists.

At age 61, with typical generosity, Michael Smith invited some of his UBC colleagues as his guests for the Nobel Prize awards ceremony in Sweden, paying their expenses. One half of Smith's Nobel Prize money went to support post-doctoral fellowships in schizophrenia research; the other half went to the Vancouver Foundation to fund public science education through Science World and the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology. Several of his doctoral students and some of his most important collaborators had been women, and he recognized that as scientists they faced many obstacles not encountered by men. Smith had only seven years in which to relish his status as a Nobel laureate and to use its prestige to further scientific education and his favourite causes. A month after he died in 2000, some 1,000 people from Canada, England and the United States gathered to honour his memory. He left big Birkenstocks to fill.


BSc (Honours Chemistry), University of Manchester, England, 1953
PhD (Chemistry), University of Manchester, England 1956


Jacob Biely Faculty Research Prize, UBC, 1977
Fellow, Royal Society of Canada, 1981
Boehringer Mannheim Prize of the Canadian Biochemical Society, 1981
Gold Medal, Science Council of BC, 1984
Fellow, Royal Society (London), 1986
Gairdner Foundation International Award, 1986
Killam Research Prize, UBC, 1986
Award of Excellence, Genetics Society of Canada, 1988
G. Malcolm Brown Award, Canadian Federation of Biological Societies, 1989
Flavelle Medal, Royal Society of Canada, 1992
Manning Award, 1995
Laureate of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame

[BCBW 2003] "Science" "Nobel"