Despite now being a scientific advisor to the U.K. government on the coronavirus, Professor Jeremy Farrar pretty much flunked his university entrance exams.
Farrar was speaking on the BBC’s weekly Desert Island Discs podcast, released on Sunday, where famous guests are asked to pick out songs they would take with them if stranded on a remote island, while reflecting on their life and career.
Farrar is director of the U.K.’s largest medical research charity, the Wellcome Trust. He has also helped advise the U.K. government on the coronavirus as a member of its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, known as the Sage committee, and has been part of the government’s Covid-19 vaccine taskforce.
However, Farrar’s path to success wasn’t straightforward, having performed badly in his “A Levels”— used as college entrance exams in the U.K. — the first time round.
In his late teens, Farrar said he became preoccupied with playing sport, meaning he neglected studying, but also admitted that he “probably wasn’t good enough” at academics either.
As a result, Farrar said he then “hit this brick wall which was I didn’t quite fail, but I might as well have done.”
As an 18-19 year old, he said that failure came as a “pretty big shock.”
Farrar retook the exams and then a year later, upon the advice of his sister, he knocked on the doors of universities around London to try to get a place at a medical school. All but one turned him down — University College London.
But Farrar said he was still having recurring nightmares about retaking his exams, up until a couple of years ago.
Those experiences, he believed, showed that there are “late developers, there are people that come to it late and there are people that have bad days.”
“But I hope as a world we haven’t lost the ability to let people have a second chance in education because I do worry it’s become so pressured,” he added.
Farrar hoped that he could serve as an example of someone who failed their exams but for whom “things turned out OK” — “I think if that inspires a single other individual who listens to this I’d be thrilled.”
Farrar has worked on research for many other infectious diseases, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Ebola. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II last year for services to medicine.