Obituary: Garth Robinson

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The Independent Culture
GARTH ROBINSON was a biochemist at Oxford University for over 30 years who became briefly, in the early Eighties, a national hero for his progressive policies on lawn mowing. "Why bother with a hover?" called the newspaper headlines.

Robinson joined a lively, if individualistic, department in 1965, where he carried out research into kidney basement membranes and their relevance to nephritis, the inflammation of the kidneys. He became involved in the development of artificial membranes, which mimicked filter membranes outside the body, allowing the testing of various agents that could damage the kidney.

At a time when many turned to molecular biochemistry he remained fascinated by the properties of whole biological structures, thereby contributing a valued breadth to the study and teaching in the department. Within the university he served as Chairman of the sub-Faculty of Biochemistry and Chairman of the Faculty of Biological Sciences, besides undertaking substantial responsibilities on the Committee for Animal Care.

He was born in St Helens in 1934 and attended Cowley Grammar School before going to Birmingham University as one of two students in the newly formed honours school of Medical Biochemistry. He remained there for his doctorate and became a research associate before spending a year in the Medical School at the University of Illinois. He returned to Birmingham for one year as a Lecturer, and moved to Oxford in 1965. At that time not every Lecturership was associated with a College Fellowship but he was elected to Hertford College in 1969.

In college he was an enthusiastic tutor who made substantial demands on his pupils but inspired them with his novel and somewhat irreverent approach. This also characterised his contribution to the college which he joined at a time of rapid expansion and development. Every problem was analysed from first principles, often leading him to suggest fundamental changes in how things were done. He never let the fact that change in Oxford tends to proceed in increments deter him and his opinions often triumphed at college meetings. He made invaluable contributions to the Finance Committee, and to the gratitude of the Fellows was long an outstanding Cellarmaster.

One of his hobbies was gardening, which he saw mainly as a method for producing food. He had no patience with cultivated flowers which merely took up valuable vegetable space, but was passionate about wild flowers. He advocated that gardens should be freely planted with them years before this became fashionable, and he declined to cut his front lawn until after their seeds had matured, much to the offence of the neighbours in the fashionable small estate on which he lived. When he circulated among them an essay outlining his policy, it was picked up by Radio Oxford, and in turn by the BBC Today programme.

Television coverage and a phone-in on the subject followed. Robin- son was seen as a hero, liberating the middle class from a weekly chore. His last laugh was that after some years of his grass being treated in this way a conserved bee orchid appeared.

This was not eccentricity. It was rather the result of a careful consideration of ecology and a determination to allow his grandchildren to enjoy the diverse biological world that he had.

Robinson retired early in 1996 to walk, climb and pursue his many interests outside of science, but this was cruelly thwarted by a long illness during which he was nursed by a devoted wife, Sheila, and his daughter and two sons. At no time in his life was he ever happier than in their company and that of his grandchildren, and he and Sheila were a joy to visit even when he became extremely ill.

K. A. McLauchlan

Garth Barton Robinson, biochemist: born St Helens, Lancashire 1 July 1934; Lecturer, Department of Medical Biochemistry, Birmingham University 1964-65; University Lecturer, Department of Biochemistry, Oxford University 1965-96; Fellow, Hertford College, Oxford 1969-96; married 1957 Sheila Dyball (two sons, one daughter); died Oxford 8 April 1999.