Portrait of Christ Church alumnus Sir John Gurdon unveiled

On Friday 23rd February we unveiled a portrait of Christ Church alumnus Sir John Gurdon, who received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2012. The portrait, painted by Geoffrey Hayzer, joins those of other eminent alumni and former members lining the walls of our Hall.

Sir John Gurdon has undertaken pioneering research in the field of nuclear transplantation and cloning, including the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become stem cells, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

At the unveiling, the Dean, Martyn Percy, praised the work of artist Geoffrey Hayzer, commenting on how Sir John being pictured leaning forwards, which is unusual in portraits, suggests his kindliness and humility, but also his intelligence. The Dean went on to discuss the slightly unorthodox circumstances that led to Sir John studying at Christ Church, and spoke of the amazing scientific discoveries that have been made by Sir John, and the likelihood that these will have an impact on our lives and health in the future. Sir John also spoke in praise of the portrait, mentioning how pleased he was that Christ Church featured in the background, and spoke about some of his more recent research, as well as some fascinating stories from his time at college.


Sir John Gurdon was born in Dippenhall, Hampshire, and studied at Eton College, where one of his teachers wrote in a report that his intention to become a scientist was 'ridiculous'. Despite not excelling at science at school, he came to Christ Church to study Zoology in 1953 - a condition of his offer, in an undersubscribed year, being that he was not to study his chosen course of Classics. He went on to complete his DPhil in Oxford in 1960, studying nuclear transplantation in a frog species of the genus Xenopus Michael Fischberg. He undertook postdoctoral work at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, before returning to England and taking up a post at the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford in 1962. 

Whilst at the Department of Zoology, Sir John carried out an experiment, published in 1962, that would have far-reaching implications. A section on Sir John's work on the Nobel Prize website describes this as follows: 'Our lives begin when a fertilised egg divides and forms new cells that, in turn, also divide. These cells are identical in the beginning, but become increasingly varied over time. It was long thought that a mature or specialised cell could not return to an immature state, but this has now been proven incorrect. In 1962, Sir John Gurdon removed the nucleus of a fertilised egg from a frog and replaced it with the nucleus of a cell taken from a tadpole's intestine. This modified egg cell grew into a new frog, proving that the mature cell still contained the genetic information needed to form all types of cells'.

This research was initially met with scepticism, but was later confirmed by other scientists, leading to further research on the topic and the development of the technique - paving the way for the eventual cloning of animals. 

In 2012, Sir John and Shinya Yamanaka were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine 'for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent' - mature cells can be converted to stem cells. In a press release, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet noted, 'the Nobel Prize recognises two scientists who discovered that mature, specialised cells can be reprogrammed to become immature cells capable of developing into all tissues of the body. Their findings have revolutionised our understanding of how cells and organisms develop.

'These groundbreaking discoveries have completely changed our view of the development and cellular specialisation. We now understand that the mature cell does not have to be confined forever to its specialised state. Textbooks have been rewritten and new research fields have been established. By reprogramming human cells, scientists have created new opportunities to study diseases and develop methods for diagnosis and therapy'.

Sir John was made a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1971, and was knighted in 1995. In 2005, the Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research UK Institute for Cell Biology and Cancer was renamed the Gurdon Institute in his honour. He was also awarded the 2009 Albert Lasker Basic Medicinal Research award.

You can find out more about Sir John Gurdon’s Nobel Prize on the Oxford University website, whilst the Nobel Prize website gives more information about the work that led to him receiving the prize, Sir John’s background, and some facts about his life.