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.