New Search

Phillip A. Sharp

Phillip A. Sharp

CHF Collections, Photograph by Douglas Lockard

  • Born: June 6, 1944, Falmouth, Kentucky

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0268
Interview Dates: January 28, 2003 and May 29, 2003 and November 20, 2003
Location: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Interviewers: David C. Brock, Arnold Thackray and Mona Ashiya
No. of pages: 117

  Abstract of Interview

Phillip A. Sharp's interview begins with a discussion of his family. He details his genealogy, from his great grandparents to his current extended family. Sharp then discusses his childhood in Falmouth, Kentucky, near Cincinnati, Ohio. After graduating from Falmouth High School, Sharp attended Union College, where he met his wife, Ann Holcombe. He received his B.A. in chemistry and math from Union College in 1966. Then, Sharp went on to earn his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Illinois. Sharp went to Caltech initially for his post-doctoral studies, but after three years he joined James Watson's virology lab at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to learn more about cell biology research. In 1974, Sharp accepted an invitation to join the research team at the newly created Center for Cancer Research at MIT. In 1977, Sharp and Richard J. Roberts discovered split genes, which led to the discovery of RNA splicing. This was a significant discovery for which Sharp and Roberts shared the Nobel Prize in 1993. Phillip Sharp worked his way up through the ranks of MIT's administration, eventually becoming head of the biology department and director of the Center for Cancer Research. Moreover, Sharp was instrumental in the establishment of one of the first biotech companies, Genentech, Inc. He also worked with a team of researchers to establish Biogen, Inc. In 2000, Sharp became the director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Sharp concludes the interview with reflections on his rapid rise through MIT's administration and the significance of the neuroscience research community that currently surrounds and includes Harvard University.


1966 B.A., Chemistry and Mathematics, Union College
1969 Ph.D., Chemistry, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

  Professional Experience

University of Illinois

1966 - 1969 Research Assistant, Department of Chemistry

California Institute of Technology

1969 - 1971 Postdoctoral Fellow

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

1971 - 1972 Postdoctoral Fellow

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

1972 - 1974 Senior Research Investigator

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1974 - 1979 Associate Professor, Center for Cancer Research and Department of Biology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1979 - 1999 Professor, Center for Cancer Research and Department of Biology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1982 - 1985 Associate Director, Center for Cancer Research

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1985 - 1991 Director, Center for Cancer Research

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1991 - 1999 Head, Department of Biology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1991 - 1999 Salvador E. Luria Professor of Biology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1999 - Present Institute Professor

The McGovern Institute for Brain Research

2000 - Present Director


1974 - 1979 Recipient of an American Cancer Society Career Development Award
1980 The National Academy of Sciences' U.S. Steel Foundation Award in Molecular Biology
1980 The Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry
1983 Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1983 Member, National Academy of the Sciences
1985 The Harvey Society Lecture
1985 The Howard Ricketts Award, University of Chicago
1986 - 1987 Class of 1941 Professorship (Chair), Massachusetts Institute of Technology
1986 The General Motors Research Foundation Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. Prize for Cancer Research
1986 The Gairdner Foundation International Award, Canada
1986 The New York Academy of Sciences Award in Biological and Medical Sciences
1987 - 1990 Councilor, National Academy of Sciences
1987 Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science
1987 - 1992 The John D. MacArthur Professorship (Chair), Massachusetts Institute of Technology
1988 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, Columbia University
1988 The Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award
1990 The Dickson Prize, University of Pittsburgh
1991 Member, Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences
1991 Member, American Philosophical Society
1991 Honorary Degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, Union College
1992 The Salvador E. Luria Professorship (Chair), Massachusetts Institute of Technology
1993 The Mendel Medal Award, Villanova University
1993 The James R. Killian, Jr., Faculty Achievement Award, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
1993 Fellow, American Academy of Microbiology
1993 The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
1994 Honorary Doctor of Science Degree, University of Kentucky
1995 Honorary Doctor of Science Degree, Bowdoin College
1996 Honorary Doctor of Science Degree, University of Tel Aviv
1996 Honorary Doctor of Science Degree, Albright College
1998 Honorary Doctor of Science Degree, University of Glasgow, Scotland
1999 Honorary Doctor of Science Degree, Thomas More College
1999 The Benjamin Franklin Medal of the American Philosophical Society
1999 Honorary Doctor of Medicine, Uppsala University, Sweden
1999 Doctor (honoris causa), University of Buenos Aires
2001 The Walker Prize from the Museum of Science, Boston, Massachusetts
2001 The Norman Davidson Lecture, California Institute of Technology
2001 Honorary Doctorate, Northern Kentucky University
2002 Honorary Fellow, Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland
2002 The Storer Life Sciences Lectures, University of California, Davis
2002 Biotechnology Heritage Award, Biotechnology Industry Organization and the Chemical Heritage Foundation

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Childhood and Early Education 1

Discussion of family life. Boyhood activities and interests. The role of religion in Sharp family. Important teachers during early education. Description of current extended family. Discussion of segregation during youth.

College and Graduate Studies 10

Attending Union College. Financial situation during college years. Marriage to Ann Holcombe. Discussion of influential faculty members at Union College. Attending graduate school at the University of Illinois. Life at Union College. Research under Victor A. Bloomfield at Illinois. Working at Caltech in Norman Davidson's lab. Mapping cellular genes. The significance of Ronald Davis on Sharp's life.

The Move to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory 25

Moving to James Watson's virology lab. Description of a peer group with Sharp's interests. Birth of second child. Being selected to work at MIT's Center for Cancer Research. Discussion about molecular biology's academic identity. Working with Joe Sambrook. Studying the adenovirus in London. Description of his work at CSHL.

The Center for Cancer Research 36

Starting a lab. Group meetings at MIT. Salvador E. Luria's personality. Applying for grants at MIT. Sharp's identity at the Center for Cancer Research. The history of biotechnology.

The Discovery of RNA Splicing 44

Description of academic environment before splicing discovery. Working with Jane S. Flint and Susan M. Berget. How RNA splicing was discovered. The academic community's reaction to the splicing discovery. The significance of viruses. MIT and the place of biological sciences. MIT's relationship with the Whitehead Institute. The academic environment surrounding MIT. The Asilomar Conference.

Entrepreneurial Ventures 53

Looking back at the biology community around MIT. The International Nickel Company and its future. The creation of Biogen, Inc. Organizing labs in Geneva and at Cambridge. Sharp's relationship with Walter Gilbert. Working at Biogen. Biogen's structure. The board of directors at Biogen. The rules at MIT during the late 1970s. Becoming director of the Center for Cancer Research. Discouraging periods at Biogen. Walter Gilbert as the CEO of Biogen. Walter Gilbert's personality.

Further Reflections on RNA Splicing 69

Post-discovery study of RNA splicing. Conclusions from Tom Maniatis' lab. Working with Paula J. Grabowski. The role of "snurps" in splicing. Robert G. Roeder's development of the first in vitro reaction. Competition in the splicing research field. The Center for Cancer Research's relationship to Ajinomoto USA, Inc. Sharp's business relationship with Bristol-Myers Squibb Company. Discussion of Sharp's research beginning in the 1980s.

The Nobel Prize 77

Other Nobel Prize winners in Sharp's field. Soon after winning the Nobel Prize. The significance of the Prize to Sharp. Nobel Laureates at MIT. RNAi research. Thomas Tuschl's work with RNAi. The significance of RNAi in C-elegans. Fraud charges against David Baltimore. Ivan R. Cottrell's donation to David Baltimore and MIT. The results of the fraud controversy.

Sharp's Influence on MIT 93

Progression through MIT's administration. His brief presidency of MIT. The McGovern Institute and the current state of Biogen, Inc. The neuroscience programs outside of MIT.

Notes 100

Index 103

  About the Interviewers

David C. Brock

David C. Brock is a senior research fellow with the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. As a historian of science and technology, he specializes in the history of semiconductor science, technology, and industry; the history of instrumentation; and oral history. Brock has studied the philosophy, sociology, and history of science at Brown University, the University of Edinburgh, and Princeton University.

In the policy arena Brock recently published Patterning the World: The Rise of Chemically Amplified Photoresists, a white-paper case study for the Center’s Studies in Materials Innovation. With Hyungsub Choi he is preparing an analysis of semiconductor technology roadmapping, having presented preliminary results at the 2009 meeting of the Industry Studies Association.

Arnold Thackray

Arnold Thackray founded the Chemical Heritage Foundation and served the organization as president for 25 years. He is currently CHF’s chancellor. Thackray received M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in history of science from Cambridge University. He has held appointments at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1983 Thackray received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry. He served for more than a quarter century on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding chairman of the Department of History and Sociology of Science and is currently the Joseph Priestley Professor Emeritus.

Mona Ashiya

Mona Ashiya is currently a research associate at Harvard Business School and an independent consultant. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh in 1998. Since then, she has held research positions at UC Berkeley, Pittsburgh, and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute of Harvard University, during which time she was awarded the Leukemia Research Foundation Fellowship.

Hear It Firsthand

The Center for Oral History captures and preserves the stories of notable figures in chemistry and related fields, with over 425 oral histories that deal with various aspects of science, of scientists, and of scientific practices. For more information please visit CHF’s Oral History Program or e-mail oralhistory@

Support CHF

Help us preserve and share the history of chemistry and related sciences. Make a tax-deductible donation online.