Professor Sir Howard Dalton: Distinguished microbiologist


Howard Dalton, microbiologist: born New Malden, Surrey 8 February 1944; staff, Warwick University 1973-2008, Professor, Department of Biological Sciences 1983-2008; FRS 1993; Chief Scientific Adviser, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2002-07; Kt 2007; married 1971 Kira Rozdestvensky (one son, one daughter, two stepsons); died Leamington Spa, Warwickshire 12 January 2008.

Howard Dalton was one of the most distinguished and influential microbiologists of his generation; his pioneering work on the biology of methane oxidation brought him early international recognition.

He studied the structure, function and regulation of enzymes in bacteria responsible for consuming methane in the environment, which help to mitigate the effects of global warming by this greenhouse gas. He opened up a new area of research into methane monooxygenase and related metal-containing enzymes and was considered to be one of the best scientists worldwide in his field. Dalton was also quick to realise the potential of microbes for the production of chemicals on an industrial scale using biotransformation, which yielded many seminal publications in a career generating more than 250 scientific papers. He was highly respected and popular, and discussing science with him was always immensely rewarding.

Dalton was born in New Malden, Surrey, the son of a lorry driver. He was highly intelligent, with an enquiring mind, and his early interest in science was evident from his many exploits with cocktails of chemicals, which often had explosive consequences. Having survived these early "laboratory" experiments, Dalton was eager to learn more and his mother was extremely proud of him passing the 11-plus and attending Raynes Park Grammar School. After school, Dalton was awarded a place at Queen Elizabeth College, London University, and graduated in 1965 with a BSc in Microbiology.

His research career started when he undertook a DPhil with Professor John Postgate FRS at the ARC Unit of Nitrogen Fixation, Sussex University, where he worked on nitrogen fixation in the soil bacterium Azotobacter. Dalton then worked for two years as a postdoctoral fellow with Professor Len Mortensen at Purdue University, Indiana, on the biochemistry of nitrogenase in the anaerobic bacterium Clostridium. It was in the United States that he met his future wife, Kira Rozdestvensky.

Recognising that physico-chemical spectroscopy techniques were going to be of great importance in studying metal-containing enzymes, he returned to Sussex University in 1970 to work with Professor Bob Bray on molybdenum enzymes. Dalton married Kira the following year and they settled in the village of Radford Semele near Leamington Spa when Professor Roger Whittenbury persuaded Dalton to take up a lectureship in Microbiology at the Department of Biological Sciences, Warwick University in 1973. It proved to be the start of a long and illustrious tenure there.

Dalton built up a large research group at Warwick and was awarded a Personal Chair in 1983. His groundbreaking work on enzymes involved in bacterial oxidation of methane, methane monooxygenases, brought him a much-deserved international reputation and opened up a whole new research field in microbiology. He also made extremely important contributions to research into the use of microbes to produce chemicals, which stimulated his great interest in biofuels. He was a down-to-earth, self-effacing man, outgoing and extremely generous of his time with well over 100 PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. Above all else, he made science fun and was an inspirational mentor and a much-loved colleague. His penetrating questions and insightful comments always made for lively and stimulating debate.

As his scientific career flourished, he received many accolades, including election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1993, appointment as President of the Society for General Micro-biology, 1997-2000, the award of the Leeuwenhoek Medal Lecture at the Royal Society in 2000 and a knighthood in the New Year's Honours list in 2007. He was Chair of Biological Sciences at Warwick, 1999-2002. His enthusiasm and knowledge of Japanese gardens resulted in the creation of two such gardens at the university.

In 2002, Dalton was seconded to become Chief Scientific Adviser to Defra, a role in which he sought to instil scientific rigour into policy making. He led the scientific advisory team generating the UK contingency plan for dealing with avian influenza virus and was instrumental in raising the profile of climate change as a significant threat, delivering lectures on this and other topics such as biofuels and GM crops.

Dalton was a great communicator and wrote an immensely entertaining and popular blog describing his two-week visit to the British Antarctic Survey in 2006 where he observed at first-hand the effects of global warming on icefields in Antarctica. Throughout his time at Defra, Dalton maintained strong links with the university, returning each Friday to look after his research group. He returned full time to Warwick in October last year and had recently delivered lectures on science policy to final-year undergraduates with his usual passion and engaging style.

Dalton had an immense zest for science and life in general and was a fine sportsman in every sense of the word. In his early days at Warwick he was a regular in the Rowington Village cricket side; a fiery fast bowler and very useful left-handed batsman. He was a lifelong Spurs supporter and a highly competitive member of the Biological Sciences football team, aptly named "Biohazard". Another great passion of his was Real Tennis and he was a member of Leamington Real Tennis Club where his competitive spirit and ability won him many tournaments. It was here, while playing in a friendly doubles tournament, that he collapsed and died.

He had just returned from a month in The Gambia assisting his wife Kira in her extensive humanitarian work, setting up new schools and medical centres. He was also lending his considerable expertise to the Gambian government on a number of important environmental issues.

Colin Murrell

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee