Professor Rodney Quayle

Leading microbiologist
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The Independent Online

John Rodney Quayle, microbiologist: born Mold, Flintshire 18 November 1926; Research Fellow, Radiation Laboratory, University of California 1953-55; Senior Scientific Officer, Tropical Products Institute, London 1955-56; scientific staff, MRC Cell Metabolism Research Unit, Oxford University 1956-63; Lecturer, Oriel College, Oxford 1957-63; Senior Lecturer in Biochemistry, Sheffield University 1963-65, West Riding Professor of Microbiology 1965-83; FRS 1978; Vice-Chancellor, Bath University 1983-92; married 1951 Yvonne Sanderson (one son, one daughter); died Compton Dando, Somerset 26 February 2006.

In his scientific career, Rodney Quayle made outstanding contributions to at least three separate but related fields, as well as serving as Vice-Chancellor of Bath University, 1983-92. After graduating from the University College of North Wales, Bangor, in 1946, he took a PhD there in physical organic chemistry under the supervision of Professor E.D. Hughes. This was of such excellence that Rod Quayle was awarded a University of Wales Fellowship and a Senior Research Award of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), which persuaded Professor A.R. (later Lord) Todd to accept Quayle into his laboratory at Cambridge University. Here Quayle chose to study the structure and chemical synthesis of the colouring matter of Aphididae; this not only resulted in a steady stream of publications in the Journal of the Chemical Society but also gained Quayle a second PhD degree.

This happy event, in 1951, was paralleled by an even happier one - he married Yvonne Sanderson, who had been a fellow student in Bangor. In 1953, Rod and Yvonne embarked on a two-year stay in Berkeley, California, where Rod Quayle joined Professor Melvin Calvin's team that was elucidating the chemical steps whereby plants, in sunlight, effect the synthesis of carbohydrates (such as starch) from carbon dioxide and water.

This research employed novel techniques for the identification and analysis of products formed, in only a few seconds, from radioactive carbon dioxide and various reactants; Quayle not only mastered these techniques but taught them to others (including me). By their use, he became the senior author of a scientific publication ("Enzymatic Carboxylation of Ribulose Di-Phosphate", published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, 1954) that is still regarded as the key piece of evidence that established "the Calvin Cycle" as the path of carbon in photosynthesis.

In 1955, the Quayles returned to England. Rod had accepted a post in the DSIR's Tropical Products Institute, to study the chemistry of the naturally occurring insecticides pyrethrins, but it became clear to him that his main interests had moved from the purely chemical to the biochemical.

By an extraordinary coincidence the Quayles attended a performance of Waiting for Godot which I (and my future wife) also attended. In the intermission, Quayle told me of his present discontents, which I relayed to Professor Sir Hans Krebs, who offered him a place in the Medical Research Council's Unit for Research in Cell Metabolism at Oxford University, which he directed. Here, Quayle's scientific career really took off.

After an initial period of collaboration where we jointly struggled to acquire facility in the handling of micro- organisms in order to apply to them the techniques that had proved so successful in unravelling the intricacies of photosynthesis, Quayle established an entirely independent and original line of research, aimed at understanding how bacteria could grow on substances containing just one carbon atom in each food molecule. This soon revealed a whole range of hitherto unknown biological processes, which not only attracted eager co-workers to Quayle's laboratory but also propelled him into international recognition as a leader in the field of microbial physiology. At the same time, he was appointed Lecturer in Biochemistry at Oriel College, Oxford, which enabled him to demonstrate his exceptional gifts as an inspiring and caring teacher.

This combination of talents inevitably led colleagues at other universities to try to entice Quayle away from Oxford and, in 1963, he accepted a Senior Lectureship in Biochemistry at Sheffield University, where, two years later, he was appointed to the West Riding Professorship of Microbiology, and thus to the chair of an active and rapidly expanding department.

Occupancy of a senior academic position entails a variety of administrative responsibilities, which Quayle could not escape. He was Dean of his university's Faculty of Science for 1974-76, served as a member of various governmental and non-governmental official bodies and, after his widely welcomed election in 1978 into the Fellowship of the Royal Society, as Chairman of one of its Sectional Committees.

In all these activities, Rod Quayle proved to be unobtrusively but firmly effective, able to achieve his objectives without antagonising others - an ideal preparation for his appointment as Vice-Chancellor of Bath University, a post he held with conspicuous success from 1983 to 1992. In his time there, he vigorously championed that relatively young university as a focus of both pure and applied research, in the conviction that there is only "Applied Science" and "Science waiting to be Applied". He did so by example as well as by precept: in moving from Sheffield, he brought with him his research team and spent every spare minute in his laboratory. The remarkable growth in size, scope and influence of Bath University owes much to Quayle's vision and enthusiasm.

His achievements were recognised by a variety of awards. In addition to his FRS, he was awarded honorary doctorates from the universities of Gottingen, Bath and Sheffield; elected to Corresponding Membership of the Academy of Sciences of Gottingen; and awarded the CIBA Medal and Prize of the Biochemical Society. He also served as President of the Society for General Microbiology from 1990 to 1993. But perhaps his greatest memorial is the affection in which he is held by his many students and colleagues.

Hans Kornberg