BSI Honorary Member

Sir Walter Bodmer


Walter Bodmer was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in 1936 and is of British nationality.  He is the son of a medical practitioner who brought his family to the UK from Germany a year before the outbreak of World War II.

He attended Manchester Grammar School and won a scholarship to Cambridge to read for a degree in Mathematics.  During this course, through his interest in statistics he discovered, and became fascinated by, the new world of genetics; he remained in Cambridge after graduating and researched for a PhD in Population Genetics, under the inspiring influence of Sir Ronald Fisher.  He completed his PhD in three years, by which time he and Julia Bodmer had married and had had two of their three children.  During two more years at Cambridge as a Fellow of Clare College and a Demonstrator in the Department of Genetics, Walter Bodmer broadened his interests and expertise in genetics. He began, at this stage, to be drawn to the more biochemical and molecular aspects of genetics: molecular biology attracted him to Stanford University, California, to the laboratory of Joshua Lederberg, Nobel prize-winner for his pioneering studies of gene exchange in bacteria.  In the stimulating environment of this prestigious laboratory, over the course of his nine-year stay, Sir Walter made substantial contributions to the area of DNA transformation of bacteria. He also initiated at Stanford what has become a lasting involvement in somatic cell genetics, i.e. the experimental study of genetics in cultured animal cells – an approach which allows the mapping of genes to specific chromosomes, and the study of gene function. Another major research area initiated at that time, with his wife Dr. Julia Bodmer, was the work that contributed to the discovery of the major human histocompatibility system, HLA.

In 1970 Walter Bodmer returned to the UK to take up the Chair of Genetics at Oxford.  Here he and his colleagues made significant advances in the understanding of the evolution, genetics and function of the human histocompatibility system, as well as other human gene-mapping advances.

In 1979 he left Oxford to become Director of Research at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund Laboratories in London, and in 1991 was appointed Director-General of the Fund.

Walter Bodmer has worked for many years on the development and molecular and biochemical analysis of the HLA system, and its association with disease, and now is interested in the variation in expression of HLA determinants in cancer.  This, together with our much improved understanding of the mechanism of action of T-cell recognition, provides a totally new approach to our understanding of the way the immune system attacks cancer cells.

His other chief interest is in the genetics and biology of the epithelial cells in the colon, from which the majority of colorectal adenocarcinomas are derived.  In collaboration with several other groups at the ICRF, his laboratory helped to localise the gene for the inherited colon cancer susceptibility, adenomatous polyposis coli.  Now that the gene has been identified, his laboratory is involved in studying its mutations and functions.  New models for differentiation of colonic epithelial cells emphasise the involvement of integrin receptors for extracellular matrix components, and carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) in the control of normal differentiation, and abnormalities in the expression of these molecules in cancer cells.

Walter Bodmer has had a major interest in promoting public understanding of science, and from 1990 to 1993 served as Chairman of an organisation committed to this: COPUS (the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science) was established in 1986 as a joint committee of the Royal Society, the Royal Institution and the British Association for the Advancement of Science to provide a focus for a broad-ranging programme to improve public awareness and understanding of science and technology, its achievements and limitations.  Sir Walter is closely involved with the activities of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (of which he was President in 1988 and is now a Vice-President) and from 1989 to 1993 served as Chairman of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum in London. In 1995 Sir Walter was appointed Chancellor of the University of Salford. The range of his interests and concerns is reflected in the list of organisations he supports:  as well as holding offices for a large number of scientific societies and publications, he is a trustee of Sir John Soane's Museum and of the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance.

Through his earlier work on human gene mapping and his current interests in genetics, Walter Bodmer has been extensively involved in the human gene mapping project.  This led to his Presidency from 1990 to 1992 of HUGO, the International Human Genome Organisation whose aim is to foster collaboration between different countries in the Human Genome Project.

In 1996 he retired from the Imperial Cancer Research Fund to become Principal of Hertford College, Oxford, and joint head, with his wife, the late Dr. Julia Bodmer, who was also a distinguished scientist, of the ICRF Cancer and Immunogenetics Laboratory at the Institute of Molecular Medicine, Oxford University.  Here he continues his research on the genetics and biology of colorectal cancer and on the genetics and population distribution of the HLA system variations, as well as keeping a general interest in the genetic study of human populations.  His now classical text with Luca Cavalli-Sforza on ‘The Genetics of Human Populations’, first published in 1971, has recently been reprinted by Dover Publications. 

He was Chairman of the British Association for the Advancement of Science from 1996 to 2001, during a time of great change and expansion, and in 1998 was made Chairman of the Government's National Radiological Protection Board.

In 2005 Sir Walter Bodmer retired as Principal of Hertford College, Oxford, to continue his scientific work at his laboratory, the Cancer & Immunogenetics Laboratory, Cancer Research UK (formerly Imperial Cancer Research Fund), at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford.

He is the recipient of more than twenty Honorary Degrees and Fellowships. 

Biography text & photo reproduced by kind permission of Sir Walter Bodmer

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