Dr. Michael Smith

More than 25 years ago, British Columbia’s Dr. Michael Smith (1932-2000) was awarded a Nobel Prize. A pre-eminent chemist and molecular biologist with a long-standing commitment to supporting emerging scientific talent, Smith’s distinguished career helped establish BC 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 BC 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.

Named in Smith's honour, the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR) focuses on talent development. Established in 2001, we are BC’s health research funding agency - optimizing the provincial government's investment in health research to develop, retain, and recruit the type of people BC needs to advance health research and the knowledge economy, and improve the health of British Columbians.

In 2018, 25 years after Smith was awarded the Nobel Prize, MSFHR and colleagues from across the BC research community celebrated his impact and continuing his work to develop scientific excellence and grow capacity in BC now, and in the future.

MSFHR is proud to continue Dr. Michael Smith's legacy with every funding award we issue.

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