Obituary for Professor Robert Hugh (Bob) Pritchard

Posted by pt91 at Apr 22, 2015 03:48 PM |
By Dr Peter Meacock

Robert Pritchard was an eminent geneticist and a local Liberal Democrat politician who was held in high esteem by his scientific peers worldwide and respected by both his political colleagues and adversaries. To his friends and colleagues he was always "Bob".

He was born the youngest of three children to Florence (Stella) and Henry Pritchard OBE, an Assistant Commissioner of the Forestry Commission. His childhood was spent in Wandsworth, south-west London, with evacuation during the war years to Radstock, Somerset. His high intelligence was quickly recognised and after grammar school in Somerset he attended the Emanuel School in Battersea where he gained several O-levels with distinction and passed the Higher Schools Certificate within one year, instead of the usual two. He was accepted to Kings College, London, to read Botany and was awarded a First Class degree and the Carter Prize for Physical Biology; during these formative years his passion for biology and genetics was kindled.

His PhD studies, carried out in Glasgow under the supervision of Professor Guido Pontecorvo FRS, involved research on genetic recombination in the filamentous fungus Aspergillus nidulans. Pritchard showed that it was possible to map the linear order of mutations within a single gene, resulting  (1955) in his first single-author scientific publication and paralleling (possibly even preceding) the classic work of Seymour Benzer on rII mutants of bacteriophage T4. Moreover he was the first to describe the phenomenon of "localized negative interference", and suggested in 1960 that  genetic cross-over events are clustered within short chromosomal regions and so may interfere with each other to reduce the measured recombination frequency between mutational sites.

From Glasgow he joined (1959-63) the scientific staff of the MRC Microbial Genetics Unit led by Professor Bill Hayes FRS at Hammersmith Hospital, London, and shifted his interests to the newly emergent field of bacterial genetics; he extended his recombination work into bacteria using Bacillus subtilis transformation by naked DNA as his system of choice. Following that he spent a year as a visiting Research Associate at Kansas State University, USA, with Professor Karl Lark. In Lark's laboratory Pritchard started the work on the control of chromosomal and plasmid DNA replication in the bacterium Escherichia coli for which he is best known.

In 1964, at the remarkably young age of 34, Pritchard was recruited to the University of Leicester as Professor, with the remit to establish a new Department of Genetics. Instrumental in that was Professor (now Sir) Hans Kornberg FRS, Head of Biochemistry, who had been so greatly impressed by Pritchard while taking the 1960 Hammersmith course on Microbial Genetics  that he persuaded the then Vice-Chancellor of Leicester, Charles Wilson, to establish a federal School of Biological Sciences in order to provide an integrated biology degree course, and appoint Pritchard as the Head of Genetics.

Throughout the time he was  building the department and serving as Head, Pritchard continued to run a large research group with a succession of  talented postgraduate students and research associates. That research was focussed on understanding the mechanisms that regulate the commencement of DNA duplication (initiation) in bacterial cells and how that process  is co-ordinated with cell growth and division - fundamental processes in cell cycle biology and key to understanding the causes of uncontrolled cell growth in higher organisms, namely cancer. Amongst the many scientific papers that were published in prestigious international journals an early one written (1969)  in association with two PhD students, Peter Barth and John Collins, was identified by the periodical Current Contents to be one of the most widely cited ever and particularly influential as it challenged  existing dogma in the field. That proposed a model of negative control on DNA initiation, "The Inhibitor Dilution Model", wherein the number of chromosomal replication origins where DNA replication is initiated is in some way titrated against the cell mass, and the process of initiation can only take place when certain conditions are fulfilled. The model postulated is a biological clock that determines the periodicity of chromosome, and plasmid, replication during cell growth, and division.

Other studies addressed the biosynthesis of the thymidine nucleotide, a building block unique to DNA, and showed how limitation of the supply of this important metabolite could modulate the overall rate of DNA synthesis and change the relative dosages of genes within the cell in ways entirely consistent with the new idea that the circular bacterial chromosome is replicated in a bidirectional manner from a single origin site. Subsequently Pritchard's group went on to investigate the properties of mutations in genes, notably dnaA, encoding components of the chromosome initiation machinery and to devise methods for the recovery of molecular DNA clones of chromosome origin regions.

Because of his clear thinking and willingness to discuss ideas with others, from postgraduates to Nobel Laureates, Pritchard was admired and respected by the international scientific community. He was widely sought after as a research collaborator both in the UK, particularly by the cell cycle researchers in Edinburgh and London, and in other countries, notably in Denmark, Holland, Israel, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA. He was invited to speak at many scientific meetings, national and international, and his contributions were unanimously acknowledged as being both original and provocative for furthering the field of research endeavour. His arguments were always logical and rational, and  based on critical thinking about the experimental data.

Pritchard was an inspiring teacher and mentor. His lectures to undergraduates in all years of their degrees stimulated students and challenged them to understand the experimental evidence supporting the topics they were being taught. As a research supervisor his enthusiasm and passion for his science was infectious; he would spend long periods in the laboratory  with his PhD students and postdoctoral associates discussing their findings in great detail and encouraging them to think carefully about the conclusions from their data and to explore new ways of addressing fundamental questions. When a new experiment was underway he would often be alongside his student to see the results coming off the instrument, keen to be involved in their analysis.

His academic contributions were not limited to his own research and teaching. He served as Chairman of the School of Biological Sciences (1977 to 1979) and sat on various committees of the University and grant awarding bodies where he gave wise counsel, but he was frustrated when he saw mindless and blinkered bureaucracy by government and other science policy makers. He spoke out strongly, writing letters to national newspapers and international periodicals and even appearing on the TV programme Controversy in 1974, about issues such where he felt incorrect decisions had been made without full consideration and discussion of the evidence -  particularly the moratorium on recombinant DNA experimentation of the 1980s when he felt the conjectured hazards of "genetically modified organisms", and the proposed actions, were totally contradictory to logical conclusions based on hard scientific evidence.

He was concerned too, about the increasing prevalence of antibiotic resistance in bacterial infections, brought about by the indiscriminate over-use of those drugs in human and veterinary medicine during the 1970s and since. He offered valid advice, based on solid genetics principles, as to how to combat this. His argument was that the carriage of resistance imposes a burden to the cell that only confers advantage in the presence of selection, ie. the particular antibiotic.  By temporarily withdrawing use of individual antibiotics under a controlled antibiotic-use policy, resistance to it the drug would eventually disappear from the bacterial population. However his arguments fell on deaf ears and we now have the problems we face today.

Other topics he wrote about included strategies for the prevention of the spread of AIDS, the involvement of patients in the choice (even administration) of their own care pathways, and  the moral and ethical decisions relating to surrogacy and in vitro fertilisation. He advocated early and open discussion of controversial societal issues, arguing that authoritarian regimes could often misinterpret facts and subsequently impose inappropriate policies which in turn contributed to public mistrust of science and its policy makers. Instead he believed passionately in public participation by informing individuals of the facts related to an issue, so empowering them to make their own judgements and voice their opinions.

The Department of Genetics that he founded with its modest complement of only 7 (Professor, Assistant Lecturer, 2 technicians, and 2 PhD students, secretary) flourished under his leadership, with his reputation as a scientist attracting new staff and collaborators from around the world. He established his department on true democratic, community and collegiate principals. Academics were encouraged to focus on what they did best - curiosity-driven research and teaching; he allowed them free rein in  selecting the topics and directions of their research and rarely intervened. All members were treated equally, and everyone from the Head down to technical staff and students in laboratories was on first name terms. Large-scale research instruments and facilities, and even the consumables budget, were operated communally and available to all; this meant that staff who did not currently hold a research grant were able to maintain progress on their project until further funding was obtained.

Pritchard convinced the University to provide additional academic positions and the initial group was expanded by appointment of staff with interests addressing a range of topics in genetics and molecular biology; fungal, developmental and population genetics (respectively Clive Roberts, Jennifer Dee, Robert Semeonoff); antibiotic proteins and cell membranes (Barry Holland); plasmid biology (Brian Wilkins). This coincided with the Department's move (1967) into new accommodation in the Adrian building where two features were introduced that were central to its vitality and success:  a communal tea-room, the site of much heated scientific (and political) discussion generally with Pritchard at its centre, and a centralised media kitchen (for glassware wash-up, growth media preparation and sterilisation) staffed by dedicated technicians to support both research and teaching programmes.

The establishment of the Medical School at Leicester in 1975 was a significant development at the University in which Pritchard again showed his astute judgement, and  prevented his department from stagnating in an increasingly difficult financial climate. He was influential in the design of the medical teaching curriculum and ensured that genetics was included in the pre-clinical training of all medical students.  This allowed him to introduce further dimensions to the department's portfolio including microbial pathogenicity (Peter Williams) and mammalian genetics (Grahame Bulfield).

Also in the 1970s, Pritchard immediately recognised that the new recombinant DNA technology, pioneered by Berg, Cohen & Boyer and others, offered enormous possibilities for fundamental and applied genetics research in both biology and medicine and he sought to recruit staff experienced in these techniques. Amongst those recruited  (1977) was Alec Jeffreys, and so the molecular era of genetics research was launched at Leicester eventually leading to the major discovery of DNA fingerprinting.

In 1983 Bob Pritchard relinquished the headship of the Department of Genetics in order to spend more time on his other abiding passion, politics. Today the department that he founded has expanded still further and is recognised as one of the foremost Genetics Departments in the UK producing research of international significance. It boasts a total population of over 120 and continues to operate with the same ethos and philosophy.

Pritchard was a life-long member of the Liberal, later Liberal-Democrat, Party and was elected firstly in 1987 to Leicester City Council as a Liberal Alliance candidate, and later  to Leicestershire County Council as a Liberal Democrat. He represented the East Knighton division, became leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Leicestershire County Council, and was a continual challenger of the policies of the dominant Labour group. Despite their disagreements he was respected by the other parties because of his courtesy, intelligence and willingness to listen to other opinions. He cared about improvement of  the urban environment, advocating policies that could lead to resettlement within city centres, and campaigned vigorously on a variety of local issues including the preservation of the wonderful Victorian facade of the Leicester railway station and trees within the city.

He was a humanist who embraced mankind irrespective of race, religion or cultural background. He fought injustice with the belief that equal rights were the most logical result of any consideration of the human condition. While on academic study-leave at the University of California in San Diego, California, he befriended some of the "drop-outs" on the beach. When one was accused of criminal behaviour purely on prejudice and with no real supporting evidence Pritchard spoke eloquently against the prosecution and the defendant was acquitted. Many years before the current "fat cat" controversy,  he was a holder of shares in a large company that was proposing to lay off a considerable proportion of its workforce while simultaneously to award the Chairman a substantial bonus for "good performance of the company". Pritchard spoke publically at the AGM against the motion, asking how these two proposals could be reconciled and arguing that the company was not treating all of its employees equally and fairly, as surely one of its functions was to create employment; his objections were reported and discussed by the national press.

Bob Pritchard enjoyed the company of other people and relished discussions, sometimes deliberately playing "Devil's Advocate" in order to test the validity of his own arguments and to explore all possible avenues that he and others might have overlooked. He was a generous man, supportive and caring to those close to him and a hospitable host throwing large parties for the department at Christmas/New Year. When he moved to his new house which had a swimming pool in the garden, he opened it up to the department during the summer months - a gesture that was delightedly taken up by postgraduates and younger staff!

In 2002 he was struck down by a neurological condition that left him almost totally incapacitated and unable to communicate, and requiring long-term hospitalisation until his death on 12th April, 2015; it was a tragic and cruel end for somebody who had contributed so much.

Bob Pritchard truly was a remarkable man with great clarity of thought and a willingness to speak out against prevailing opinions and dogmas when he felt they were wrong; he will be greatly missed.

Robert Hugh Pritchard, geneticist; born 25th January 1930, Wandsworth, London; Founder,  Professor (1964 to ~1989, then Emeritus) and Head (1964 to 1983) of Department of Genetics, University of Leicester; Liberal Democrat City and County Councillor (1989 to 2002); married twice, secondly to the artist, writer and teacher Suzi Pritchard (deceased); two sons (both deceased) and one daughter; died Leicester 12th April 2015.

Peter A. Meacock, April 2015

Peter Meacock was a PhD student with Professor Pritchard, 1971 to 1975, and is now Emeritus Reader, Department of Genetics, University of Leicester.

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