Dr. Michael Smith

Dr. Michael Smith (1932-2000) was a pre-eminent chemist and molecular biologist whose distinguished career helped establish British Columbia as a hub of world-class health research.

In 1993, Smith became BC’s first Nobel laureate, earning science’s highest honour for his role in creating one of the foundational tools of genetic engineering. When he died in October 2000, a flood of tributes described a man of many aspects: an inspired scientist, a humanitarian, a humble and generous mentor loved for his humour, and a committed believer in BC’s potential to be a leading centre of health research.

Smith came to British Columbia from England in 1956 as a post-doctoral fellow. Working in the lab of future Nobel laureate Har Gobind Khorana, the young organic chemist developed a passion for molecular biology, with a particular interest in synthesizing oligonucleotides (short strings of nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA). By 1966, Smith’s talent and tireless work had earned him an appointment as a professor in the UBC Department of Biochemistry, which would become his permanent academic home.

In the mid 1970s, Smith began work on the procedure that would be his greatest achievement. Site-directed mutagenesis is a genetic engineering technique based on the notion that targeted mutations may be induced at specific sites in a genome. Using synthetic oligonucleotides produced by his lab, Dr. Smith developed and refined a method for selectively engineering mutations in genes. This technique has become one of the foundations of biotechnology and has given rise to new diagnostic tests and treatments for genetic diseases.

The magnitude of this work was recognized on the global stage in 1993 with the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (shared with American Dr. Kary Mullis). Following his Nobel win, Smith devoted himself to supporting research in British Columbia. He generously pledged his $500,000 award to support science education and successfully challenged the provincial and federal governments to match his donation.

In the late 1990s, Smith helped realize the dream of creating Canada’s first genomic research centre devoted to the study of cancer. His steadfast support for enhancing BC’s research potential led to the creation of new facilities and resources that have resulted in breakthroughs and enabled the training of talented young scientists.

The Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research was established in 2001 to honour Smith’s memory by carrying on his commitment to building BC’s health research capacity. As we enter our second decade, we will continue to uphold his legacy of support for up-and-coming researchers and sustain his vision of a strong, vibrant research community.

Michael Smith stamp image © Canada Post Corporation (2004).