David Wynn-Williams

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The Independent Online

David Donaldson Wynn-Williams, microbiologist: born West Kirby, Cheshire 16 July 1946; research microbiologist, British Antarctic Survey 1974-2002; Polar Medal 1980; married 1979 Elizabeth Davies; died Cambridge 24 March 2002.

David Wynn-Williams was a robust, interactive biological scientist, who developed new ideas concerning the origins of life by studying microbes in cold deserts, and who was an outright enthusiast for all things Antarctic. Something of a polymath, he created links across disciplines and advocated the idea that photosynthesis was adopted by bacteria which arose from the sea-bed and subsequently colonised the land. He suggested that a similar evolution may have occurred on Mars, perhaps before life had arisen on earth.

He was killed in a road accident whilst jogging near his home in Cambridge – an unfair, unjust and untimely death of a man at the pinnacle of his scientific career. He will be missed not only by his colleagues at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the wider Antarctic community, but also by his numerous research collaborators and the international network of astrobiologists within which he played a crucial role. From his early, fundamental studies in the ecology of polar micro-organisms, he used microbial communities as model systems to test their survival in extreme environments and under changing climates, and later proposed them as Antarctic analogues to possible life on Mars.

Wynn-Williams was born in West Kirby on the Wirral in 1946, and educated at Calday Grange Grammar School and Birkenhead Technical College followed by a BSc (Honours Botany and Microbiology) in 1968 at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, where he also researched for his PhD in environmental microbiology. In 1970, with his sense of adventure, he led an Aberystwyth expedition to Iceland. His university studies were followed by a spell of teaching school biology, first in south London and then at the Judd School in Tonbridge, Kent. From this period, he developed an interest in enthusing people, young and old, with scientific ideas and honed his ability to advance and discuss a wide range of issues.

Appointed initially on contract to research terrestrial microbiology in the Antarctic by BAS in 1974, he wintered at Signy Island base in 1975 and 1976, where he undertook the first quantitative study of the activity and population dynamics of micro-organisms (principally bacteria, yeasts and fungi). It was during this early polar work that he developed his deep passion for, and appreciation of, the Antarctic that was to stand him in such good stead later.

A permanent position with BAS followed, enabling him to make a further 10 summer visits to Antarctica, broadening his research field and allowing him to develop a keen interest in the ecology and survival of simple organisms such as cyanobacteria and micro-algae. With a growing international reputation, Wynn-Williams was a guest scientist with the University of Canterbury team in the New Zealand Antarctic Research Programme in 1982-83, during which he made his first field studies at Ross Island and in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

In the austral summer of 1992-93, he led a six-man team to the Mars Glacier on Alexander Island, Antarctica, possibly one of the harshest environments for terrestrial life. It was during these field studies that he became more and more aware of the importance of moisture, rather than of temperature per se, in the survival of micro-organisms in extreme environments. He was subsequently (1995-96) co-leader of an international expedition to the Lake Hoare Long Term Ecology Research site established by the United States in the McMurdo Dry Valleys and to Terra Nova Bay, Northern Victoria Land, with an Italian research group.

Two further visits were made to develop the BAS Antarctic cold desert research sites at Mars Oasis on Alexander Island from Rothera station (1997-98, 1999-2000), and his latest fieldwork was undertaken in collaboration with the US Antarctic Research Programme, again at Lake Hoare in the Taylor Valley, with a team from Colorado State University and the University of Illinois. At BAS, in 1993 he became head of the Terrestrial Microbiology Section and leader of the Antarctic Astrobiology Project and Section Head, Origins of Life, in 2000.

Wynn-Williams's research interests latterly centred on the ecology and survival of photosynthetically active micro-organisms in Antarctic cold deserts and their use as analogues of extra-terrestrial life, particularly on Mars. He was also intensely interested in how such life forms would respond to environmental (especially climatic) change and increased UV-B levels. To this work he brought an unparalleled enthusiasm and a continual stream of ideas as well as a wide range of technology including epifluorescence microscopy, image analysis techniques, FT-Raman spectroscopy (in collaboration with Bradford University) to determine in situ UV-protective pigments, and many innovative field experimental techniques. Several of these studies using endolithic and stromatolithic communities broke new ground and, together with his lifelong interest in astronomy, formed the basis for his ideas on the origins of life.

In 1980, Wynn-Williams was awarded the Polar Medal for his contribution to Antarctic science. He was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Royal Geographical Society and the British Interplanetary Society, and played a leading role in many UK, European and world-wide groups concerned with microbiology, astrobiology, exobiology and the ESA Mars Express Mission. In addition, he was a member of the Editorial Board of Polar Biology, had begun to establish the new International Journal of Astrobiology and was a member of several scientific societies.

During his 25 years of Antarctic work, he produced 100 publications, including 80 research papers in a wide range of scientific journals on subjects as diverse as the microbial contribution to peat respiration, lichens at the limits to life, endolithic communities, UV protective pigments, biomolecules and Martian impact craters. Seminal contributions were made by his review entitled "Potential Effect of UV Radiation on Antarctic Primary Terrestrial Colonisers: cyanobacteria, algae and cryptogams" (Antarctic Research Series 62) in 1994 and recently the paper (with H.G.M. Edwards) on "Environmental UV Radiation: strategies for protection and avoidance" in The Quest for the Conditions of Life, edited by G. Horneck and C. Baumstark-Khan and published this year. During the course of his research, Wynn-Williams initiated collaborations with a huge network of scientists and organisations, including the Nasa Ames Research Center, the European Space Agency and the Nasa Johnson Space Center.

"Wynn" possessed an irrepressible zest for life combined with, at times, unbridled enthusiasm, which often left his colleagues floundering. As a Fid (the name for a BAS Antarctician, from its former name the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey), he wholeheartedly embraced polar life, its traditions, its privations, its rigour and above all, its camaraderie. He was one of a generation of Fids that had a total commitment to the UK work and research programmes in Antarctica, a fact not always recognised today. His energy was almost boundless, his enthusiasm for any task was never less than 100 per cent and his interests were almost to the point of obsessiveness.

His interests in Antarctica were wide. He devoured its history (he was instrumental in locating in Norway, in her eighties, Signy Sørlle, after whom Signy Island had been named by her husband Captain Petter Sørlle in 1912, when he was surveying parts of south Orkney for sealing and whaling operations) and was accumulating information for a proposed history of Signy Island. He was always conscious of the responsibility to explain his science (and the funding thereof) to the public. He set up and ran a lunchtime Science Club at Chesterton Community College, Cambridge, where he was also Chair of its Parent-Teacher Association for several years. The BAS Club (for past and current staff and associates of the Survey) greatly benefited from his work as its Secretary, Membership Secretary and Newsletter Editor during the 1980s and 1990s.

He found time for other activities in his busy life: his Welsh ancestry came to the fore in choral singing with, amongst others, the Cambridge Philharmonic Choir; photography; his family and the pleasure of seeing his daughters, Cherry and Rosanna, developing in so many ways; and running (he competed in the London Marathon).

William Block