How do you tell someone their dad was a world-class jerk?

It’s a familiar story about Svante Pääbo being awarded the Nobel prize for his work on sequencing ancient DNA. It’s all very interesting, but I’ve heard it many times before…and then it gets upstaged by a tale from his personal life which I did not know about.

Behind the scientific success story is also one of considerable personal challenge. “My father had two families and we were the undisclosed one, the other was the official one. My father would show up on Saturdays, have coffee or lunch with me and my mum and then disappear again.”

WAIT, WHAAAT? Your father kept you as his ‘secret’ family?

His mother, Karin, who died in 2013, would have been “proud and thrilled” about his prize, he says. She came to Sweden from Estonia in 1944, escaping the Soviet invasion, and overcame linguistic and financial barriers to become a chemist.

The fact that his father, Sune Bergström, a biochemist, was himself awarded the Nobel prize (also for physiology or medicine) in 1982 for his work on prostaglandins, had little influence on Pääbo’s own scientific path he says. “Only to the extent that my mother met him through her work. It was rather her great fascination with science that was transmitted to me. She hugely encouraged my curiosity and supported me when I changed from medicine to natural sciences. She was by far the greater influence.”

When his father received the award in Stockholm, he was a graduate student in Uppsala and followed the ceremony on television.

“I had a different surname to him and only very few people even knew we were related,” he says. It wasn’t so much having to keep his famous father secret from his colleagues that was painful to him, “rather that his other, ‘official’ son knew nothing about us. We had several intense rows about it. I even threatened to seek out his family and explain it to them. So my father said he would tell them, but it never came to that,” he recalls.

In 2014 he told the Observer his father’s other family found out when Bergström died in 2005. “It was only then my half-brother learned about me. Fortunately he adjusted and we get on all right,” Pääbo said.

That is so fucked up, and Bergström sounds like a terrible father. That had to have left a few scars.


  1. wzrd1 says

    Fair enough, I’ve always said that were I to have multiple wives, they should all live in the same building to more efficiently plot my demise.
    Although, my wife used to retort, “as if you could find anyone else that could put up with you!”.
    A point I wisely conceded to.

    Proving the wisdom of the broken clock. I’m right twice per day.

  2. Oggie: Mathom says

    This is something that, historically at least, was, if not common, at least not that surprising. I ran across a case in the files of a railroad (not published) in which one railroader (a railway agent in the loss department) had three families — one in New Jersey, one in Pennsylvania and one in New York. Which, when it came time to collect his railroad pension upon his death led to a file almost two inches thick. The New Jersey family got the pension as that wife was first to publish (date on the marriage certificate).

    Evita Peron, as a child, was reared in a second family (and we all know how that turned out). Some of the early modern banking families included men with multiple wives in multiple European cities (this was condoned by the greater banking family because a local marriage of the right kind opened up many banking and money-making opportunities).

    I’m not condoning having multiple wives (or husbands) at the same time, just pointing out that, until recently, it was much easier to get away with. And, for the man with multiple wives, more acceptable as a manly-man sort of mannish thing to do.

  3. Erp says

    Stanford University had a case back in 1991; Norman Lewinston in the Med School died and it came out he had three wives. The third had just learned about the other two but the others knew nothing about each other. Fortunately he only had children by his first wife.

  4. brightmoon says

    My uncle and my father both had outside families. So I’ve got 2 half sisters from 2 different mothers . One 10 years older than I am , the other 25 years younger. My late uncle had 4 wives . He’d cheat on the next while still married to the first. They all divorced him except the last and that’s only because he outlived her. In both families, all the kids get along and the ex wives all eventually hated the men because of the self centered selfishness.

  5. Rich Woods says

    I know someone who grew up thinking his father had no blood relatives still living other than himself, but when my friend finished university and applied for a job that required a security clearance, the positive vetting process uncovered an extensive family all across Ireland. His dad may have regretted encouraging him to aim high in life.

    He didn’t get the job. He does, however, get on very well with all his half-brothers, half-sisters, and cousins.

  6. mordred says

    I don’t know whether my father left me any half siblings. I think it’s quite likely he did, as he was a liar a womaniser and an irresponsible asshole.
    Actually for a long time he frequently insisted that he never had any other women after my mother kicked him out and divorced him, which was good evidence he did, as my mother actually didn’t give a damn and he kept bringing it up.

    Over the years three of the women he never had contacted us when they were looking for him and their money. None of them ever mentioned kids, but I’m sure they weren’t the only ones.

  7. drew says

    Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait . . . the scientist who made us rethink our idea of our lineage had a “secret” father?

    That only seems appropriate.

  8. says

    If King Charles and Diana had been married in a different time, say even a generation earlier, they probably would have stayed married. Diana would have been expected to put up with Camilla and keep quiet about it. But the culture had changed, and even naive upper class women expected their husbands to take their marriage vows a bit more seriously than before. Or perhaps it’s more correct to say the public expected them to do so, even if they were royals.

  9. leerudolph says

    wzrd1@1: “Proving the wisdom of the broken clock. I’m right twice per day.” There are many ways in which a clock can be broken. Being completely stopped is one of them, and indeed (if we ignore the possibility of local Daylight Savings Time) a stopped clock is right twice every day. A clock that is broken by running fast, or slow, can have much more complicated behavior (the detail are left as an exercise for the reader). A clock that is broken by having both its hands ripped off is never right. And so on.

  10. birgerjohansson says

    Svante Pääbo seems to have made a deliberate decision to keep no secrets; in his book about his life and journey to scientific success he is rather oversharing about his private life.

  11. says

    Elon Musk has 9 living children with 3 different women.

    … something conservatives consider an indicator of moral turpitude. All the “poor are from broken homes” stuff does not apply to anyone with over $10mn in assets.

  12. says

    “Proving the wisdom of the broken clock. I’m right twice per day.”

    Yeah, but for how long? If you have a clock without a second hand, I suppose you can enjoy two minutes of being right, but if it’s got a sweep-hand you’re down to 2 seconds. Not even worth trying at that rate.

  13. Samuel Vimes says

    Simple. You don’t tell them. Because unless it is imperative that they know, you don’t need to. Comes under the MYOB banner.

  14. wzrd1 says

    @leerudolph, no hands and a leap-second?
    Hmm, sounds like a good title for a book. ;)

    @Marcus Ranum, I’ll take whatever good seconds that I can these days.

  15. Snarki, child of Loki says

    Still waiting for the time when my broken clocks are correct.
    They’re all flashing “88:88:88”.
    At least they all agree, so that’s something.

  16. sarah00 says

    That article is really disappointing – huge chunks were copied from the 2014 piece that was linked in it – including the paragraphs about his father.

  17. says

    A stopped clock is correct only once each day. I still live on a 24-hour clock, so “1:37” occurs only at very early morning hours. My car, my computers, my phone, my Japanese-manufactured alarm clock — all go up to 23:59. And start the day at 0:00.

  18. chris says

    I listened to a podcast where someone described their polygamy lifestyle. Apparently the kind where everyone knows about each other. I thought it was exhausting, especially Valentine’s Day. Like PZ I have been with the same spouse for over forty years… and I cannot fathom trying to deal with the quirks and issues of another partner.

    Though this did remind me of another Nobel Prize laureate who did not learn about his parents until he applied for a green card to work in the USA. Sir Paul Nurse was raised by his grandparents, who claimed to be his parents, while telling him his mother was his sister:

  19. drsteve says

    One of the most curious bits of trivia I learned in the course of becoming a Doctor Who fan was that, in his private life, Patrick Troughton was apparently one of these types. Despite that his version of the character was arguably the sweetest and and most lovable one of the first seven. Though to be fair, the Second was also known for his dark, manipulative streak.

  20. David Richardson says

    My maternal grandfather came from Llanelli in South Wales. When he was in the trenches in WW1, another Welsh regiment moved into their part of the lines. One of other soldiers looked at my grandfather and said to him, “You’re Frank, aren’t you.” It turned out that my great-grandfather had two families, one at the coast in Llanelli and the other up the valley in a coal-mining village. The ‘valley’ family knew about the ‘coast’ family, but not vice versa. The two half-brothers managed to spend an evening in a café behind the lines, but the next day the other regiment moved on … and they never saw each other again (it sounded like the half-brother was killed).