Zhores Medvedev

One of the more unusual recruits to NIMR was Russian geneticist Zhores Medvedev. He was a distinguished scientist who had fallen foul of the Soviet authorities for daring to publish a book in 1966 denouncing the ‘pseudoscience’ of Trofim Lysenko, whose doctrine many Soviet scientists had been obliged to follow since the ban on classical genetics in Russia in 1948. As punishment, Medvedev was dismissed from his position as the head of a laboratory at the Institute of Medical Radiology in Oblinsk. A year later, he was arrested and placed in a psychiatric hospital, resulting in an outcry that was featured in international news media. He was released three weeks later.

Over the next four to five years Medvedev received invitations to speak and work abroad, but had his requests for a travel permit repeatedly refused by the authorities until 1972, when he was finally granted permission to travel together with his wife Rita and the younger of their two sons. The oldest child remained in Russia with relatives. At Burgen’s invitation, Medvedev came to NIMR to work for one year in Robin Holliday’s Division of Genetics. Holliday had begun working at NIMR in 1965, having discovered the crossover points between chromosomes during the meiosis phase of cell division – known as the Holliday Junction. Holliday was turning his attention to the process of ageing and cell death, or senescence, and was interested in Medvedev’s prior studies on ageing in mice and rats. Medvedev took the position even though there was no salary – as was the norm for visiting scientists. The royalties from his books provided sufficient income for the Medvedevs to live modestly in North London. In August 1973, Medvedev’s passport was confiscated and his Russian citizenship revoked, which meant that he could not return home. Luckily, he was offered further positions at NIMR, and eventually tenure. After three interviews by the British secret service, MI5, and censorship of his mail, Medvedev gained British citizenship in 1980 and worked at NIMR until his retirement in 1990. Throughout his first few years at the Institute, Burgen was a good friend and supporter. He approached the Wellcome Trust for additional funding to support Medvedev during his first year in the UK. In addition “he invited me to his house, he introduced me to his wife; he showed London to Rita and me. So he treated us quite well. I was free to come to him anytime,” Medvedev recalls.

Rita was a biochemist who had worked as a technician in Medvedev’s laboratory in Oblinsk. Although

Medvedev gained a technician at Mill Hill, Rita also worked in Medvedev’s laboratory there full time – but
unpaid. “Nobody offered and we didn’t ask about it because the only possible choice would have been to
dismiss or to not take the technician… we decided that we could live with one salary.”
Zhores Medvedev
Zhores Medvedev

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