Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys - inventor of DNA fingerprinting - to retire from Leicester Unversity
As Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys prepares to retire from the University of Leicester, Dan Martin looks at an amazing career crowned by a discovery that has changed the criminal justice system forever
Groundbreaking genetic scientist Sir Alec Jeffreys is set to retire from the university where he carried out the research which revolutionised criminal investigations across the world.
At the end of this week, the 62-year inventor of DNA fingerprinting will end his 35-year career at the University of Leicester.
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However, he has been awarded the lifetime honour of becoming an emeritus professor.
Sir Alec's initial discovery, in 1984, has helped with the capture and conviction of countless rapists, murderers and other criminals as well as allowing those wrongly accused of crimes prove their innocence – including some on Death Row.
It was notably used to convict Colin Pitchfork, the Littlethorpe killer who murdered two schoolgirls in the 1980s.
Former head of Leicestershire CID, David Baker, who led the Pitchfork investigation, has described the professor's work as "the greatest contribution to forensic science and criminal investigation in the 20th century".
The techniques Sir Alec first developed have also changed the landscape of family law – forming the basis for common paternity tests used in official family disputes, as well as daytime chat shows.
His work has also been used in historical and archaeological research – and will also be key to discovering whether his former university colleagues have discovered the human remains of King Richard III in Greyfriars car park, Leicester.
Sir Alec said: "I have to say I am amazed at how the DNA technology, which was invented this month in 1984, has reached out round the entire world, and has touched the lives of millions of people directly.
"I am enormously proud not only to be part of this great university, but to have played a significant part in the life of this wonderful university.
"I am equally proud to be a continuing part of this city and region – Leicester granted me its freedom as a mark of my discovery and I remain forever in its debt."
His work has received widespread recognition, including a knighthood for services to science and technology in 1994.
In 2004, Sir Alec was awarded the highest accolade the University of Leicester could present – a Distinguished Honorary Fellowship.
University vice-chancellor, Professor Sir Robert Burgess, said yesterday: "Sir Alec is the epitome of the modern academic, high quality, inclusive, modest and loyal. His joy of scientific research and discovery is shared not only with staff and students but through his tireless outreach work."
Sir Alec said there remains one scientific question he would like to see answered.
He said: "Extra-terrestrial life. I would love to see that before I die."
Scientists yesterday paid tribute to the man and his achievements.
Dr David Hartshorne is commercial director of Cellmark Forensic Services, which makes the DNA identification technology invented by Sir Alec.
Dr Hartshorne said his discovery "revolutionised" forensic analysis.
He said: "DNA profiling is the investigator's most powerful tool not only to help identify the guilty, but also to exonerate the innocent and is used across the spectrum of criminal offences, from homicides and sexual crimes to burglaries and car thefts.
"Certainly he and his work have been an inspiration to the current generation of forensic DNA scientists."
Dr Paul Debenham, director of innovation and development at the privately-owned Laboratory of the Government Chemist, said: "DNA fingerprinting is now very relevant to many aspects of human life.
"When you think of forensics, DNA is at the heart of it. When you think of paternity, DNA is at the heart of it.
"The technology we use now, though not exactly the same, was built on the same logic as the technology of Sir Alec Jeffreys. The UK and the world have benefited from his work."