INT: Can I ask you a little about your experience as a refugee? When you came up to Glasgow did you mix with other people who had escaped Germany?
INT: Or even before that did you…?
JSS: You mean when I first came up?
INT: Well you were only here for 6 weeks so no, no, I mean the second…
JSS: No there were several, there were several at that time.
JSS: At least one, or possibly two, I don’t remember exactly. Also eventually I met again in Paris. When I say met again, simply and solely, because we were… once we left here we went to different uni’s and I’m sure I was the only one who went to the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry. The last employer, farming employer, was very, very helpful in many ways.
BSS: He’d already had your uncle as a butler.
JSS: Yes and he actually, he could have stopped me coming but I think he needed it and it was a reserved occupation, you couldn’t argue with this. He was very helpful, he understood and I kept in contact until he died with him and his wife. In fact while I was farming there it was the better times. In the evening I played bridge with them.
INT: You know I think I wanted a little more because I know that when we first met you it was through the SAROK so was there a gap when you were here and you weren’t mixing with other refugees and then you met them again or was it continuous?
JSS: No once I was working I was working and I really had very little else. Incidentally Glasgow University had at least three, I think it was four, professors…
BSS: Who were Kindertransport.
JSS: …who were Kindertransport.
BSS: That I think is incredible.
INT: I know that is amazing. So that’s you, Professor Hutter…
JSS: That’s right.
INT: Isi Metzstein as well.
JSS: Isi Metzstein.
BSS: And who’s the…Overton
BSS: Karl Overton.
JSS: He’s died.
INT: Yes, Karl Overton who died recently.
INT: What was Karl Overton’s area?
INT: That is quite remarkable.
INT: Did you know any of the people when you came to Glasgow and came along to any of the meetings?
JSS: When I first came up, just during the forces, the Glasgow people…
BSS: Gave hospitality.
JSS: Especially, I’ve forgotten what the name of the place was, hospitality to Jewish recruits if you like to put it. And I went to that with two or three others and we were very hospitably treated. We met some of the younger people but we never, we were there only for 6 weeks and 6 weeks in Glasgow, at that time which is winter time now, fogs, I don’t know if you remember Glasgow?
BSS: Black, black, black.
JSS: So the people were friendly but also the non Jewish people were friendly. For one penny you could go anywhere on the trams and the conductress often refused to take your penny because they knew we were getting very little. So that was very reasonable, very happy, But I never kept up with any of them.
INT: And later you met, did you meet through SAROK people again? When you joined SAROK did you meet other people at that stage or not really?
JSS: That I had met before? No. Don’t forget so many years have gone in between that probably most of them have gone somewhere else.
BSS: I can remember going to a lecture when we first came up, when we came up, with (???). And I can remember.
JSS: Wasserstein was one of them.
BSS: Oh yes of course the Wassersteins lived very close to us for that very short time. And my children… they gave us a lot of baby clothes, we had absolutely nothing. So for years my children’s dolls were wrapped in a blanket, a little square blanket with BW in the corner. So there he is and we unfortunately should have kept it shouldn’t we?
INT: And have your sons kept Subak Sharpe as their…?
JSS: Yes they’re both consultants now. Yes, Subak Sharpe. His daughters, his son also is Subak Sharpe, he has two twin daughters and although they got married and got new married names have taken the Subak into their name. I was on a visiting committee that were involved in cancer research, it was British and Czech combined and we started in Prague and I happened to be sitting opposite another man called Alexander who was also, I think, a Jewish professor speaking to one of the leaders on the Czech side who was minister as far as I know. The Czechs had two ministers, one was Slovak and one was Czech at that time. And he just asked me whether I had any connections so I said “Yes”, “Where to?”, I said “My father was born in Třebič but I’ve never been there.” So he said “OK, I’ll make sure that you go there and visit, joint visit between British and Czechoslovak scientists with interests in various aspects of cancer research, which incidentally the British leader was Michael Stoker who had been my predecessor. So that’s the first time I went and I’ve been a number of times.
BSS: 91. Keeps crossing the Atlantic, was there two or three weeks ago, 91.
JSS: The family has been very close and…
INT: I was going to ask which I know hasn’t anything to do with the questions, but I was admiring the photograph…
BSS: Of Robert?
INT: …of your award, it’s John and you. So when was that taken?
INT: What is that? That looks very impressive.
BSS: That’s the CBE.
JSS: You have some photographs…
INT: “For god and the empire”
JSS: …of the queen.
INT: Because we interrupted your history of what happened.
BSS: There you are there’s John and Lizzy.
INT: So let’s go back to the foot and mouth, there must have been something that led from foot and mouth research to getting the CBE.
JSS: I held the chair and the directorship together, they were really separate things, for 26 and a half years.
BSS: And also he was on various governments.
JSS: And after about 20 odd or so, this was in, when was it? ’91?
INT: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a CBE, it’s lovely looking, the blue is beautiful.
BSS: What a good looking man, what a good looking boy my husband was. Don’t you think?
INT: I noticed that.
INT: Actually yes, I thought that actually.
INT: Very handsome.
INT: And blonde.
BSS: Oh actually, well you can see the grandmother with the blonde hair on the landing.
JSS: I was very blonde but of course one turns pink as one gets older.
BSS: There you are, you see you have various appointments, government appointments and things.
INT: So this is the Biochemical Society?
JSS: That’s really quite… that’s the CIBA medal. There’s only one awarded each year. Can I tell you you’ll see it’s more attractive on the other side. Could almost be a Jew, his name was Miescher, he might have been.
INT: And why were you awarded…?
JSS: He started DNA.
INT: Why were you awarded the CIBA medal?
JSS: Isolated the chemical.
INT: What would you say was the highlight of your working career?
JSS: Highlight? It was really in considerable competition at that time to be picked by Himsworth as the future director when Michael Stoker, my predecessor, took over the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. And I was picked and given that opportunity despite of the fact that were several other people who were…
BSS: At least three others.
JSS: …more British than I certainly. You say highlight, I enjoyed my work, I enjoyed the work I did on nearest neighbour analysis. This is where you analyse DNA and RNA by transferring one atom from one to the nearest neighbour and then identifying which are the different letters that follow one another. I did quite a bit there and that gave me some reputation elsewhere. I did quite an interesting work much earlier than that, I did, before when I was with Ponte initially, I really discovered some non nuclear inheritance, extra nuclear inheritance in fungus. That would have been my career normally if I hadn’t suddenly had a wife and a child and the opportunity came to start something quite different in viruses about which I knew very little at that time when I started. Other things were isolating some of the first mutants of herpes simplex virus, still with my hands. It was very important and suddenly finding that I was beginning to get an international reputation. I didn’t publish very much.
INT: Probably because you were so busy actually working.
BSS: That’s right. That’s right.
INT: I would imagine.
JSS: Even if I say it myself I was fairly generous in starting something and then handing it over to others. But I felt that that was the right way of going about it.
BSS: He never kept anything for himself, other people often got the…
JSS: I was to be elected to EMBO, it’s really another (???), the European Molecular Biology Organisation, very early during it’s time. And I did quite a lot of work for them and amongst other things I went on to one of their committees and then became the chairman of the workshop, course and workshop committee. I ran several workshops here in Glasgow which was really very important because it’s seeded. So I got known quite well as seeded virology in particular the genetics aspect of virology which I did virtually throughout Europe, so that was quite early on.
INT: I liked the way you sort of say, very understated, that was… I think that’s quite exceptional.
BSS: He worked for the horserace betting people, well OK but I’m just going to say he did at some stage or other, and he was given hospitality by Lord Carnarvon.
BSS: So he went and saw the remains of the Tutankhamun bits in his… that were there. And it was very interesting and he goes to the jockey club, I’ve even been to the jockey club and, you know, the game’s not worth the candle so you had to pay for the candle on your bridge table or your card table and that game wasn’t worth the candle. And yes, of course, he had lunch with the queen and they talked about snotty noses. It’s a horse disease.
JSS: I lost out of that one because…
BSS: You didn’t get your lunch.
JSS: …this was at St. James Palace she came, we had a very nice lunch with very good wine that was there and I was in the queue standing and Carnarvon came up to me and he said “John you should meet the Queen”.
BSS: Talk snotty noses.
JSS: So I was dragged out, saw everybody else continuing getting their wine and so on, went to speak to her and she talked about her problems and so on and you can’t really leave the Queen.
JSS: Finally she said “Just talk to my vets and tell them when to see a vet” and once off the beat so to speak…
INT: You raced back for the wine.
JSS: It was too late.
INT: Aw that’s a sad story.
INT: I think that’s got to be a low point.
JSS: Yes. No but that was quite nice, it was interesting in itself to be on that committee that had quite a lot of money but they ran out, eventually they ran out of money so that stopped it. And the money the committee still had was handed over to the Horserace Betting Levy Board and they went on.
BSS: He worked very closely with Smithkline Beecham.
JSS: That was quite interesting, other highlights was I think running some of the herpes virus workshops was really…
BSS: When he retired…
INT: And I would have thought this…
INT: CIBA medal dinner.
JSS: Yes that is a bit of silver.
INT: It certainly is.
BSS: Now that was a wonderful lecture because all the people who had been associated with him from all over the world, and there was a map up on the wall of the world where all the people who have been associated with him came, you know, they were marked on the map.
JSS: They did me well.
BSS: And the Principal at that stage was very nice, he said he always knew, he always knew that when John Subak Sharpe had something to say, he said “John always thought first and spoke afterwards”. I can’t remember the exact words but it was very nice. And then later on there was the last meeting of the herpes group, and this was in Vancouver, they gave him, presented him with, a gold whistle. Now don’t laugh but the whistle was the handover, you know in a relay race you handover, well the whistle, a whistle, was always handed over to the next chairman. So this time they presented…
JSS: You started the meeting and then you handed it…
BSS: So they gave him actually a gold whistle so I don’t know who on earth has a solid gold whistle? Which we have, and then the other thing that they did was when the collection was made when he retired and the John Subak, JH Subak Sharpe lecture was inaugurated for each of these meetings.
JSS: Well I think they must have by now run out of money.
BSS: They must have run out of money by now. But certainly…
JSS: Because they collected…this was international, it was all international.
INT: Well I think you obviously, what mining engineers loss was was a gain to the world of genetics. I think you’ve done much better than you would have done as a mining engineer.
JSS: I think you might be right there.
INT: So he was obviously wrong.
JSS: The idea of course…I don’t know, this man just wanted to fill certain places, he had no interest.
BSS: So anyway it was only after he retired and Dorrith started that, we went to the first one, suddenly he becomes a member outside of a Jewish community and I think this was very good. The other thing was that while he was working people said “You speak very good German, where did you learn it?” and he said “School”. Which, of course, is correct but not giving away too much.
JSS: Well it just depends who…
BSS: And the children always used to make fun of him as, I can remember, Bernard Wasserstein’s parents telling us a lovely story. She was called to the telephone and when she came back the eldest one, the others were in the bath, and the eldest one was standing there Imitating his mother “You vill get out of ze bath now!”. Our children always used to say Dad, why does dad say finger and not finger. What were the other things they always laughed… And the other thing is we have one or two words which are Austrian which we use and automatically kukuru which is maize, sweetcorn, palatschinken which is pancakes.
INT: That’s in Hungarian as well. My mother in law had them.
BSS: That’s right.
JSS: Don’t forget the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
INT: Oh I see.
JSS: You asked about Jewish and obviously there was my colleagues and people in the institute had all known that I’m Jewish, however, nobody ever said anything that I could in any way regard as hinting at some problem. The only time that I have come across it on one occasion was quite different. You know I had, as the director of the institute, I got a number of visitors at different times and I took them to lunch and showed them round the institute and so on. And there was one retired chap, he had a cardio problem, I don’t even remember his name exactly anymore, who kept on asking questions and he then said, you know personal questions, he said “How come I couldn’t find your name in the medical directory in the list?”. I said I’m not there but if you’re interested. “Well how come you’ve become the director? I said, I was just taking him back from the lunch and said “Ok I’ll let you know”. I took him into my office where my secretary sat and said to Mary “Mary just get the Who’s Who and get my entry from the Who’s Who and give it to Dr….”
BSS: John has always had tremendous loyalty from his staff. He’s had three, I think it’s three, it might be even four, secretaries. We keep up with all of them and they all think he’s absolutely wonderful you know.
INT: It’s been a pleasure
INT: No it’s been extremely interesting and incredibly impressive actually.