Sydney was taught to read by a neighbor. When a customer at his father’s shop learned that Sydney, at age 4, could read English fluently but that his father could not afford to send him to school, the customer paid the boy’s tuition.
At 15, Sydney won a scholarship to study medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The scholarship covered only his fees, but he managed to afford university life by earning the equivalent of five cents a day by attending synagogue to help form a minyan, the quorum of 10 men required for public prayer.
During his medical training he became interested in scientific research while growing disenchanted with clinical medicine. After finishing medical school in 1951, he won a scholarship to Oxford to work on bacteriophages, the viruses that attack bacteria.
The scholarship required him to return to South Africa. In 1952, he married a fellow South African, May (Covitz) Balkind, who was divorced and had a son by an earlier marriage. She went on to a career as an educational psychologist, and she and Dr. Brenner had three children of their own.
Dr. Crick was eventually able to find Dr. Brenner a post in Cambridge, and in 1956 he returned with his family to England for good.
Dr. Crick, a physicist by training, was a theoretician, but Dr. Brenner was deeply interested in the practice of biology as well. He loved the laboratory, and he loved designing elegant experiments. As a student in South Africa, he had built his own centrifuge. If he had wanted to stain a cell, he first had to synthesize the dye.
At Oxford, “he threw himself into bacteriophage research with the energy of a man digging a tunnel out of prison,” Horace Freeland Judson wrote in “The Eighth Day of Creation” (1979), a history of molecular biology.