John Cairns has worked in virology, molecular biology, genetics, and cancer biology.
Originally trained in medicine, he has concentrated his efforts in the area of cancer research. He investigates the processes that lead to variation in microorganisms under the influence of selection pressures. His overview of the entire field of cancer research is set out in the book, Cancer, Science and Society (1978). Cairns is also the author of a work entitled Matters of Life and Death: Perspectives on Public Health, Molecular Biology, Cancer, and the Prospects for the Human Race (1997), an introduction to some of the major fields in modern biology. His recent interests lie in the role that stem cells play in the genesis of breast cancer.
A professor emeritus of cancer biology at the Harvard School of Public Health, Cairns has been a professor at Harvard University since 1980, after serving as director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York (1963-68).
Cairns received a B.A. (1943), B.M. 1946, and an M.D. (1946) from the University of Oxford.