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If you like Ian Wilmut's story, you might also like:
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Linda Buck,
Francis Collins,
John Gearhart,
Susan Hockfield,
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Shinya Yamanaka

Ian Wilmut also appears in the video:
Frontiers of Medicine

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Ian Wilmut in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Frontiers of Medicine

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Ian Wilmut
Ian Wilmut
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Ian Wilmut Interview

Pioneer of Cloning

May 23, 1998
Jackson Hole, Wyoming

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  Ian Wilmut

How did you become interested in science? I understand your first interest was in farming?

Ian Wilmut: Actually even that was very indirect.

The first thing that I can remember wanting to do is to go into the navy. I don't clearly recollect whether it was merchant navy, or whether it was the military service. That came because of meeting a man who I admired immensely. He was a friend of one of my grandparents and he was a super man, and so I really admired him. So, in the age sort of coming up to 10 or 11 I suppose that was my ambition. Unfortunately, I'm slightly color blind, and color of course is involved in signaling on boats, and so I sort of turned away from that.

I think the initial reason why I became interested in farming is that I wanted to be outdoors. I've always enjoyed being outdoors. And so, I looked around and when I was at high school, probably 14 or so, my parents through friends arranged for me to be able to go work on farms on the weekend. I'm of course a city boy, in other words. I was born in Coventry, we moved to the West Riding of Yorkshire, which is industrial. We lived in a woolen area, in an area where the mill was famous because it was the first in which the wool from llamas was used, alpaca. And so it was an industrial area. But I always enjoyed getting out. And I think it was through working with animals on the farm. I'm not particularly mechanically minded, so tractors never really attracted me at all. But, milking dairy cows, becoming familiar with dairy cows, understanding the biology a little bit, that's where the interest developed.

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You were basically a farmhand?

Ian Wilmut: Yes, absolutely. I mucked out yards, and things like that, and as I got to be better known to them, I was allowed to milk the animals and so on, and really enjoyed that.

You've said you became interested in biology through doing those kinds of menial chores. What's the link?

Ian Wilmut: I think it was curiosity. The dairy cows giving birth, the calves and their problems, how the younger animals are trained. Certainly, the birth has always struck me as an extraordinary thing. We now live in a country area, and a number of years ago I went and assisted a friend at lambing time. It really is amazing every time. Of course, as a biologist I now know much more about what goes on inside the animal. The fact that that the whole animal comes from a single cell is really an extraordinary thing, and it's fascinating to try to understand it more. But back then it was simply wanting to understand how to improve milk production, how to improve fertility, and the collection of milk

So you could have very easily become a dairy farmer.

Ian Wilmut Interview Photo
Ian Wilmut: Absolutely, that was my expectation. I applied to a school of agriculture, with the thought of going overseas, to go to a developing country. That was something that my wife and I (my girlfriend then) discussed at that time.

What was your interest in that?

Ian Wilmut: That's a different challenge, and it's still there for young people today. There are thousands of hungry people around the world. Probably the biggest contribution that you can make to developing countries is in simple things we take for granted like fences, rather than the very high-tech things which I've become involved in. There's still a considerable contribution to be made by agricultural specialists, veterinary surgeons, bringing things we take for granted into these different environments.

Do you regret that you didn't follow through on that goal?

Ian Wilmut: In some ways, because we didn't travel, but overall no. I've been so fortunate in my research. I think that will actually contribute more, indirectly and over a long period of time, than I could have done in that other way.

Was there a pivotal event that turned you towards the area of biology and specifically, embryology?

Ian Wilmut: I can't remember what made me start thinking about it. Everybody did the same subjects in the first year at school, and then you specialized. I was most interested in animals, but I began to realize that I wasn't really a very practical person, and that practical agriculture probably wasn't the right thing for me.

It was a relatively unusual thing to do in Britain in those days, but I arranged to go and work in a lab for a summer project on a scholarship as an intern, which students here I think almost take for granted. Not quite, but it's well been built into the routines here. In Britain it is still not a routine thing, you have to work pretty hard to get them. And I was very fortunate to get a scholarship. So, I went and worked in a lab for eight weeks, when the main function was just to do the ordinary tasks in the lab. But, there was obviously a responsibility on the senior scientists to talk to you, to explain to you what was going on and that was in my last holiday as an undergraduate and [this experience] utterly persuaded me that was what I wanted to do.

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They were trying to understand at that time how it is that an animal which has been mated knows whether or not she's pregnant. Because if she's not pregnant, it's important that she comes back into heat and has another chance to mate and to conceive again. Whereas, if she is pregnant it's important that she stays pregnant. So it's obviously very subtle, but very important machinery. They were using the transfer of embryos from one animal to another to study this.

I became involved in the experimental procedures, worked with the animals, and for the first time saw embryos and assessed them. And these are -- you know, they're very small, a tenth of a millimeter across, but they're extremely beautiful little things, which grow into all of the different things and that's where the fascination in developmental biology and embryology came from.

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Where did you see them? In a test tube?

Ian Wilmut: No, what you have to do in this sort of experimentation is to push sterile fluid through the reproductive tract to take the eggs out, and then to put them into a dish. You can only just see them with the naked eye, they're so small, one 200th of an inch roughly. Looking at them with the naked eye, you'd just see a tiny little dot, like a period at the end of a sentence, and that's all. You can't tell anything about it, you can't move them about or anything.

If you put your flat dish onto the microscope, as you turn the magnification up, then you can begin to assess them. Usually by the time you transfer the egg it should have divided into a number of cells. You can see if that division has taken place and whether it's all even and whether the cells look normal. There's a shell around these things called the zone of pellucida, the clear zone, which shines in the light. The cells are darker, because they have fat in them. So you have these lovely single spheres to start with, which then divide into the smaller cells, which really look beautiful. I was learning from casual conversations in the lab, as well as from the work itself.

This will horrify people now, but this was before health and safety regulations came in, so we actually had coffee in the lab. This is, you know, absolutely illegal and not very safe, but at that time people didn't think about it. And, a cart went round the corridor every morning delivering tea, coffee and so on to people. And people -- the senior person in the lab -- would come out and we'd sit and talk, and it might be last night's TV program, or a game of cricket, or the girlfriends that we had -- whatever it was -- or science. And, in my experience, this is where science makes progress often because somebody will put in an idea, or a new observation, and it sparks something else in somebody else's mind.

In my own experience, I think a lot of these things go on in your subconscious. I find myself saying something and almost seeing it go past and thinking, "Hey, that's a good idea." Apart from the social fun, this is also when scientific ideas get discussed. Somebody will develop a hypothesis in a conversation.

People still think of the lab as a pretty serious place.

Ian Wilmut: That's not my experience at all. When I first became a postgraduate student, there were a number of people who wrote essays like, "Science should be fun." Reproduction should be fun, because that's my specialty. If you're not enjoying it, if it's not fun, you should be doing something else. I'm sure that there are some jobs which are very boring, assembling cars for example. I can only imagine that the fun there comes from conversations with people, which is important in science, as well, but we have the privilege of doing something interesting as well.

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