Professor Gerald Kerkut

Gifted but enigmatic neuroscientist
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The Independent Online

Gerald Allan Kerkut, neuroscientist: born London 19 August 1927; Junior Fellow, Pembroke College, Cambridge 1951-54; Lecturer in Animal Physiology, later in Physiology and Biochemistry, Southampton University 1954-60, Senior Lecturer in Physiology and Biochemistry 1960-64, Reader 1964-66, Professor 1966-92 (Emeritus), Head of Neurophysiology 1978-90, Dean of the Faculty of Science 1978-81, Chairman, School of Biochemical and Physiological Sciences 1980-81; died Southampton 6 March 2004.

Gerald Kerkut, Emeritus Professor of Physiology and Biochemistry at Southampton University, was one of the most gifted neuroscientists of his time.

Kerkut was an enigma: he could be highly supportive of a young scientist seeking publication of his first paper, but very scathing of some of his contemporaries and elders. In his youth, his ability to antagonise resulted in his never fully achieving the acclaim many felt he deserved. Up until the mid-1970s Kerkut regularly took part in scientific meetings, always ready to ask a searching question. To the loss of the scientific community, he then largely withdrew from attending them, but continued to communicate through editorials and reviews in his journals.

During the 1950s and 1960s Kerkut supported positive links with scientists from the Soviet Union. In 1967 he attended the first international symposium on the neurobiology of invertebrates, held in Hungary and organised by his friend Professor János Salánki. The Balaton Limnological Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, in Tihany, provided an ideal venue for the interchange of ideas between scientists from "East" and "West".

Gerald Kerkut was born in 1927 in Holborn, London, the second child of Blanche and Leon Kerkut. He began his secondary education at Finchley Grammar School but at the outbreak of the Second World War the family moved to Cheltenham, where he attended Cheltenham Grammar School for Boys. Kerkut would have been successful in whichever profession he chose. He could have been a musician, an art critic or a banker, or studied medicine. In the event he elected to read Natural Sciences at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he gained a First.

Kerkut remained at Cambridge, within Zoology, for his PhD, investigating the locomotion of starfish, under the guidance of Eric Smith. Kerkut not only had a first-class knowledge of the scientific literature, but revelled in challenging accepted dogma and this is beautifully illustrated in his inaugural lecture, "The Missing Pieces", delivered in 1968.

He was very appreciative of the opportunities offered by Cambridge and made full use of the tutorial system. One of his tutors, Philip Whiting, roused his interest in the structure of the nervous system through the beauty of Golgi preparations and methylene blue stained neurones. Whiting introduced him to the published works of S. Ramón y Cajal. Kerkut always retained a love of microscopy. It was during this time that he learnt to question the evidence for the accepted view; that there were fashions in science and that the fashionable explanations were not necessarily the correct explanations. Kerkut had the opportunity at Southampton University to question many of these dogmas and force the scientific community to review its thinking on a number of fundamental concepts.

After a three-year junior fellowship at Pembroke College, Kerkut was appointed to a lectureship in Animal Physiology at Southampton in 1954 within the department of Zoology. Kerkut considered he got the job because at the interview he could converse with the Vice-Chancellor on Wittgenstein and had attended lectures at Cambridge by Bertrand Russell.

His appointment came two years after the university had received its charter and it was a very different world from Cambridge. Southampton had its positive points - for example, Kerkut was able to purchase new equipment. In Cambridge he had been at the bottom of the academic tree and had to mend and make do with equipment which was out of date and often non-functional. He considered it a culture of string and sealing wax.

Soon after coming to Southampton, Kerkut, together with Professor Kenneth A. Munday, set up the Department of Physiology and Biochemistry. Prior to 1959 they had been part of Zoology and Kerkut had many entertaining stories about his colleagues of that period. Kerkut could be relied on to speak his mind on any and every topic.

As to be expected, there was opposition to the establishment of a new department but it had a supporter in the then Professor of Chemistry, N.K. Adam, who was sympathetic to Physiology. The first honours students in Physiology and Biochemistry started in 1956 and from then until his retirement in 1992 Kerkut played a key role in the training of science undergraduates in Physiology, Biochemistry, Pharmacology and related areas. Physiology and Biochemistry rapidly grew in size and its presence was identified in 1968 by the Royal Commission on Medical Education (the Todd Report) as a key reason for the establishment of the Medical School at Southampton, which had its first intake of students in 1971.

Kerkut was interested in developing new model systems for the study of basic properties of neurones and synapses and while at Cambridge had searched for a suitable in vitro system. He had been particularly interested in the work of A. Arvanitaki and N. Chalazonitis, who used giant neurones from the gastropod mollusc, Aplysia, for intracellular recordings.

However, Aplysia, Kerkut decided, was too difficult to obtain and too expensive to use routinely and he selected another gastropod, the garden snail, Helix aspersa. Garden snails are easily recognised and could be collected by local children for a penny each. So began a programme of research using this and other model systems which was to extend over the next 40 years.

Kerkut's major scientific achievements included studies on the role of the electrogenic pump, on which he published a book with Barbara York (The Electrogenic Sodium Pump, 1971); the recognition that the ionic content of neurones could vary and was not constant, that the amino acid, glutamic acid, was a chemical transmitter, that there was fast axon transport, and that certain insect neurone cell bodies could generate overshooting action potentials.

After some 30 years working on invertebrates Kerkut turned to isolated mammalian CNS preparations and with Jeffrey Bagust developed an isolated spinal cord preparation, using three- to six-week-old hamsters, mice and rats. Although he was a great advocate of in vitro preparations, Kerkut was the first to acknowledge that it was essential to relate such findings to the intact living animal.

Kerkut will be remembered for his record in the world of scientific publishing, both for journals and for books. Much of this was done with Pergamon Press, the creation of Robert Maxwell. Kerkut first met Maxwell in 1958 to discuss the possibility of publishing a new journal in comparative biochemistry and physiology. He was very impressed by Maxwell's sympathetic approach and quick grasp of the situation. Maxwell agreed for Kerkut to go ahead with the project as soon as possible. Kerkut organised an honorary editorial board and sent out invitations for papers.

The first number of Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology appeared in March 1960 with a preface by Joseph Needham. Other authors in the number were Bradley Scheer, Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, Ernest Baldwin, Jean Roche and Otto Lowenstein.

Evolution was another area which fascinated Kerkut and Maxwell also agreed to publish Kerkut's book The Implications of Evolution in 1960. In this he critically reviewed basic assumptions and implications regarding the origins of life and the inter- relationships of the invertebrates.

Kerkut was a great advocate of new technologies and edited Microcomputers in Neuroscience (1985), in which he also contributed the opening chapter. In the last few years he became increasingly interested in his website and wrote on a wide range of topics, not only in science but in politics, student concerns, money and education. The website (www.soton.ac.uk/~gk/index.htm) proved amazingly popular, achieving over 60,000 hits per week, and will be maintained by Frank Goodwin.

Gerald Kerkut enjoyed music, art and travel. He regularly practised on his grand piano and derived great pleasure from listening to music. His most recent purchase was the sets of the symphonies, concertos and sonatas of Mozart. He had an extensive collection of art books and never lost the pleasure in buying books, particularly if he secured a bargain.

Robert Walker

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