Professor Basil Weedon

Organic chemist and Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham University
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The Independent Online

Basil Charles Leicester Weedon, organic chemist: born London 18 July 1923; Research Chemist, Dyestuffs Division, ICI 1943-47; Lecturer in Organic Chemistry, Imperial College 1947-55, Reader 1955-60; Professor of Organic Chemistry, Queen Mary College, London 1960-1976; FRS 1971; CBE 1974; Vice-Chancellor, Nottingham University 1976-88, Honorary Professor 1988-2003; married 1959 Barbara Dawe (one son, one daughter); died Lincoln 13 October 2003.

Basil Weedon had two distinct careers, the first as Professor of Organic Chemistry at Queen Mary College, London, over the period 1960-76, and the second as Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham University from 1976 to 1988.

Over his scientific career, Weedon made seminal and fundamental studies of the striking coloured carotenoid pigments found in plants and animals. The carotenoids are involved in several important biological processes, including acting as accessory pigments in photosynthesis and as a source of vitamin A, which is essential for the process of vision. They also perform a vital role in protecting plant tissues from the destructive effects of light and air.

Together with other extracts, such as beetroot and grapes, several natural carotenoids are used commercially to colour soft drinks, ice cream, confectionary, bakery products, jams and preserves, and various dairy products. Increasingly, they are included in preparations and formulations to protect us against sunburn.

Using a combination of modern nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, and synthetic methods, notably the "Wittig" reaction, Weedon established the structures of many important naturally occurring carotenoid pigments, including "canthaxanthin", the carotenoid responsible for the brilliantly coloured feathers of the flamingo, "astaxanthin" found in lobsters, "rubixanthin" in rose hips, "capsanthin" and "capsorubin" in red peppers, and "fucoxanthin", the most abundant natural carotenoid found in marine algae (seaweeds). Weedon's research team also worked out the structure of the well-known food pigment "bixin" found in the seeds of Bixa orellana ("annatto"), which was the first carotenoid to exhibit geometrical isomerism.

In other fundamental studies, Weedon established the structures of the colourless and the less-coloured biological precursors to the orange and red carotenoids in the common tomato and carrot, ie lycopene and beta-carotene respectively. In addition to his pioneering investigations of the structures and synthesis of carotenoids, Weedon made studies of vitamin A and a new and novel family of pyrrolylpolyene pigments known as "wallemias" from fungi.

He was also interested in the chemistry of unusual reactions in strong alkali, electrolytic synthesis and the autoxidation of fats and fatty acids. These studies are described among over 200 original scientific papers that Weedon published. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1971, and received several awards, including the Meldola Medal and the Tilden Lectureship of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

As well as pursuing fundamental research in organic chemistry at Queen Mary College, Weedon was also Dean of the Faculty of Science at London University and sat on several official bodies at the university and in higher education. He chaired the Food Additives and Contaminants Committee of the Ministry of Agriculture, and was also a member of the EEC Scientific Committee for Foods. In 1973 he was appointed CBE.

By the mid-1970s, Weedon had become an established and respected scientist and also a resolute committee man with a flair for administration and a burgeoning interest in policy-making. It came as no surprise to many of his close colleagues therefore that, when he was invited to become the fourth Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham University in 1976, he did not hesitate to accept.

Weedon took over the post at Nottingham at a particularly challenging time in the development of the university. Nottingham University had gone through a significant post-war expansion, the country's first new medical school of the 20th century (Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham) had been completed, and the funding crisis in higher education of 1981 was looming. There was significant uncertainty about the future of the university at this time but, through his conscientious and astute management of resources, Weedon not only ensured that the prime function of teaching and research was being performed, he also made sure that the financial position of the university was very strong. There is no doubt this was an important legacy to his successor, and clearly Weedon derived much satisfaction in witnessing how Nottingham University has flourished and expanded to become a leading international university over the past 10 years.

Basil Charles Leicester Weedon was born in Wimbledon, in south-west London, and educated at Wandsworth School. He graduated from Imperial College of Science and Technology, London, in 1942, when he was just 19 years old, and he completed his PhD in organic chemistry three years later. The young Weedon then worked as a research chemist in the Dyestuffs division of ICI Ltd, at Blackley, Manchester, before returning to Imperial College as a Lecturer in Chemistry in 1947. He was promoted to a Readership in 1955 and appointed Professor of Organic Chemistry at Queen Mary College in 1960.

In retirement, Weedon was chairman of the Council of the National Stone Centre in 1988-91 and of the East Midlands Regional Electricity Consumers Committee in 1990-94.

Known to his friends as "Jimmy", Weedon was seen by many as somewhat distant, even shy. To those who knew him better, he was a private man, kindly and thoughtful, who could exercise a mischievous and teasing sense of humour at times. He was also a devoted family man who enjoyed walking his dogs and listening to classical music in his leisure. In his latter years, Jimmy Weedon suffered with Parkinson's disease, which he tackled with fortitude and in his usual dignified manner.

Gerry Pattenden