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Smithies’ notebooks go digital

Carolina’s world-renowned geneticist and Nobel laureate took daily notes since he was a biochemistry grad student at Oxford nearly 65 years ago.

Oliver Smithies, Carolina’s world-renowned geneticist and Nobel laureate, has been taking daily notes in his journals since he was a biochemistry graduate student at Oxford University nearly 65 years ago. Smithies has dedicated his life to the study of science, and his notebooks contain not only his groundbreaking research, but also details of his day-to-day life.

As of Nov. 7, those 150-plus notebooks are open to the world on the Oliver Smithies Research Archive website, which include digitized scans done by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library with support from the Office of the Provost.

“When you are doing science you have to keep a good record of what you do, and I suppose I’m a person that saves things,” said Smithies, Weatherspoon Eminent Distinguished Professor at the School of Medicine. “They accumulated without any particular thought about them being kept for anybody except for me. I think the reason to digitize the them was not for any personal vanity or anything, but because they have a record of what an everyday scientist is doing for a lifetime.”

It is extremely rare for anyone, let alone a Nobel laureate, to have their personal and professional lives documented in such detail, making Smithies’ notebooks a one of a kind collection.

“We’ve collected historic books and manuscripts for a long time; these materials are the building blocks for current and future research and scholarship,” said Nicholas Graham, University archivist. “The notebooks will provide terrific opportunities for scientists interested in learning more about his research process, and I can also see them being very helpful for journalists and biographers.”

Smithies’ notebooks chronicle the development of his Nobel Prize-winning work on gene modifications in mice, including the “aha!” moment when he knew he had discovered something special.

“It was the experiment where we were first able to demonstrate that we could alter genes,” Smithies said. On the scanned page, you can see that Smithies circled the key section and commented “This is it!” after getting eight positive test results proving his method of gene modification worked.

“I distinctly had the following thought: That I know this is the critical experiment, and it’s like flying an airplane [blind] on instruments, where you are following various dials, and when you come out of the clouds there should be a runway in front of you,” said Smithies, who is also a pilot. “I felt that this experiment was like I was coming out of the clouds and there was the runway.”

In addition to the more serious technical notes, Smithies’ notebooks are full of small notes highlighting significant parts of Smithies’ life. Small gems line the margins, such as a mention of him flying his beloved Grob motor glider and getting married.

The Oliver Smithies Research Archive website also features audio clips of Smithies going through the notebooks and providing context.

“We got married at the police station one Friday afternoon,’’ Smithies says in one of the audio clips. “And people [at the lab] asked, ‘Where have you been?’ Oh, just getting married.”

The audio accompaniment weaves in funny moments, too. Describing a time where he had to retrieve delicate blood samples from a hospital for sick children, Smithies described being so fanatic about it that he attempted to drive straight from the hospital without stopping so he wouldn’t shake the samples.

But, Smithies said, he ran through a stop sign and received a ticket. “I went to court on this and explained what I’d done and why I’d done it, why I hadn’t stopped because I didn’t want to shake the sample. But the judge didn’t let me off. I still had to pay the fine.”

When asked what he hopes people will get out of his notebooks, Smithies said, “Persist in your work. Keep trying. Don’t be put off by something not working. Try it again and try it again. Keep on going as long as is wise.”

Although technologies may change, UNC Libraries is working on digital preservation to ensure that the valuable work like Smithies’ will be preserved and shared for years to come.

Meanwhile, although digitization allows for the notebooks to be shared around the world, Smithies said he has no plans to change his handwritten method of taking notes

“I think it’s very good to always have a hard copy of the most critical things and by a hard copy I mean the old-fashioned way of in a book,” he said. “Make sure there are records of the sort that have lasted for a thousand years. Keep good records. I mean that, really.”