I start this blog post with, “I don’t want to sound bitter but…” and then I’ll go on to probably do just that. The media is full of tributes to Diego Maradona; some call him a genius, some a deeply flawed legend. For me personally, he was a cocaine addict connected to the Mafia who had a talent for kicking a football – when he wasn’t cheating. Does that sound bitter? Well, actually it’s not Maradona specifically I have a problem with but more the celebrity-culture which worships its heroes no matter how damaged their persona becomes.
Some years ago I had the great privilege of meeting Fred Sanger. Who, you might ask? Fred Sanger was a British biochemist and one of only three people to receive two Nobel Prizes in Science; one in 1958 for his work on proteins and another in 1980 for the way DNA stores its code in a sequence of bases. Both proteins and the genetic base-code sequence have appeared repeatedly on this blog in respect to the battle against Covid-19. Sanger was one of the great pioneers of biochemistry, whose groundwork has already led to the saving and betterment of countless lives, and will undoubtedly continue to do so for many years to come. There is an institute in Cambridge named after him, the Wellcome Sanger Institute where the Nobel Laurette, John Sulston did so much on the Human Genome Project. The Wellcome Sanger Institute continues its work in Fred Sanger’s name to this day, including sequencing viral genetic codes.
Just before I met Fred Sanger at a ceremony in London in the mid 1990s, I visited the National Portrait Gallery and discovered a painting of the scientist by Paula MacArthur. I mentioned this to him and he wasn’t keen on it because he thought the way his eyes were painted made him look like a stereotypical mad scientist. Judge for yourself, if you think we was right.
He died in 2013. There were obituaries in some newspapers and BBC Radio-4 did a piece on him in the Last Word. But compare the outpouring of hero worship adorned on a household name because he was a cocaine addicted footballer and someone who saved the lives of thousands, if not millions and few have ever heard of. I admit I’m biased but I’m left with a feeling that much of humankind has its priorities rather confused.