John Savory

Expert on wood-attacking fungi who defined 'soft rot'

John George Savory, mycologist: born Sacriston, Co Durham 8 November 1917; married 1957 Cynthia Clements (two daughters); died Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire 25 August 2003.

When he retired in 1983, John Savory was the UK's leading expert on the special group of fungi that attack wood and wood-based materials.

He was Principal Scientific Officer in the Forest Products Research Laboratory, which later became the Princes Risborough Laboratory of the Building Research Establishment, and began working on the dry-rot fungus after the Second World War. He was notably responsible for identifying a new group of wood- destroying microbes. The decay they caused he termed "soft rot".

Savory was born at Sacriston, County Durham, in 1917, the son of a Newcastle shipyard worker. His parents trained as schoolteachers and moved to Cambridgeshire, where his mother became Headmistress of Burrough Green Primary School. John was educated there and at Cambridge County High School. He went on to Nottingham University and, in 1939 was awarded a First in Botany.

He started postgraduate research at Nottingham but with the outbreak of war joined the Royal Navy as a telegraphist, training at HMS Ganges Signal School. He saw action on the destroyer HMS Versatile, undertaking convoy duties between Rosyth and Sheerness, and in 1942 was posted to North Africa as part of the Operation Torch invasion. He was involved in Operation Husky in July 1943 at Cape Passero, in Sicily, and with the navigational leader of the first wave of assaulting infantry in Operation Avalanche at Salerno that September, before taking part in the D-day landings in Normandy. After demobilisation, Savory returned to his postgraduate studies in mycology.

In 1948, he seized the opportunity to join the Forest Products Research Laboratory (FPRL), the government research institution at Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire, as a Senior Scientific Officer in the Mycology Section under the supervision of K.St G. Cartwright and W.P.K. Findlay.

Savory worked extensively on the identification and physiology of the fungi causing decay in cooling towers and boats as well as on the special peculiarities of the dry-rot fungus that was ravaging buildings in Britain, especially those which suffered damage in the war. He made substantial contributions to testing technologies and to the derivation of national and European standards, as well as inspiring new studies on the microbial ecology of decay in wooden windows in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Undoubtedly his single most important scientific achievement, and that for which he remains internationally renowned, was the recognition and description in the mid-1950s of a new group of wood-destroying microbes causing what he called "soft rot" - on account of the slimy texture conferred to the wood they degraded, especially under aquatic conditions. Indeed, when in 1969 a completely new genus of fungi was discovered by researchers at Portsmouth Polytechnic to cause soft rot in the marine environment, its identifier, Gareth Jones, gave it the name of "Savoryella" in tribute to Savory.

He published extensively in the scientific and technical press and his work has provided the basis for many practical specifications on products and processes for the preventive treatment and remediation of wood decay.

John Savory met his wife, Cynthia, at FPRL, where she was a scientist in the Mycology Section. In 1954 he was promoted to Principal Scientific Officer and, when Findlay left the laboratory in 1957 to become Deputy Director of the Brewing Institute, Savory was appointed head of the section.

In the early 1970s, FPRL was the subject of particularly tumultuous changes as the Government revolutionised its policy for science. Mycology was combined with Entomology to become the Biodeterioration Section, and eventually FPRL merged with other government research stations to become the Princes Risborough Laboratory of the Building Research Establishment. Savory guided his staff through the uncertainties of the time with perception and gentleness. He maintained a dignified and professional loyalty, ensuring the continued effectiveness of his section, despite his own misgivings about the future for the internationally acclaimed fundamental science upon which the high reputation of FPRL had been based.

An honorary life member of the International Research Group on Wood Preservation (IRG), Savory also gave of his knowledge to the industry and was a regular invited contributor at annual conventions of the British Wood Preserving and Damp-proofing Association. He was always more interested in his science and his protégés than his own status, and formally or informally tutor and mentor at some stage to practically all the current leading senior scientists in his field.

On his retirement, he remarked that he considered himself privileged to have been able to pursue his hobby as a career and be paid for it. He maintained his support for the future of his science, particularly as a Visiting Lecturer in the Timber Technology Section at Imperial College, London, and by continuing to participate in the annual conferences of the IRG.

Tony Bravery

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