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Obituary: A. G. Ogston

Alexander George ("Sandy") Ogston had a gentle but critical mind. He conveyed to his Oxford undergraduate students, of whom I was one, the need to keep in mind a simple question that is still relevant after half a century - "Is the conclusion sensible?"; or, as he would have put it, "Is it thermodynamically reasonable?"

This need for things to make sense is probably why Sandy Ogston was able to solve a theoretical biochemical problem of considerable interest at the time in the 1940s when the metabolic pathways of living organisms were being worked out by Sir Hans Krebs and others.

Several chemical steps had been considered and rejected by other investigators because they required an apparent impossibility - the paradoxical formation of only one of two equally likely asymmetric products from a symmetrical precursor. In the summer of 1948 Ogston convincingly argued in a scientific paper of fewer than 400 words that the paradox disappears if the symmetrical precursor is attached to its relevant enzyme at three points.

This three-point attachment hypothesis was widely accepted (Krebs devoted almost the whole of a chapter of his autobiography to Ogston's "penetrating theoretical analysis" in this matter), and was a factor in Ogston's election to the Royal Society in 1955. Typically, Ogston was somehow slightly embarrassed by the importance others placed on this work, because, as he would diffidently explain, the idea only took him a few moments to conceptualise.

Born in 1911, Sandy Ogston was educated at Eton and at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was a Brackenbury Scholar and gained a First in Chemistry in 1933. After a brief time as a Freedom Research Fellow at the London Hospital studying blood proteins, he was awarded his DPhil (Oxon) in 1937, and began what was to become a period of over 20 years as a Fellow of his old college, tutoring in Physiology and lecturing in the Department of Biochemistry.

During the Second World War he was a member of the Ministry of Supply Research Team (1939-43) and of the Inter-Service Research Bureau (1943-44), where his physical chemical skills were used in attempts to develop methods of inactivating some of the awful poison gases used in the First World War.

After the war, Ogston resumed his academic studies, which seemed always to be characterised by his ability to arrive at unexpectedly simple solutions to difficult problems. Thus the solution of a complex anomaly, observed in 1935 (while at the London Hospital) when blood proteins were centrifuged, was shown 10 years later by Ogston and his student J.P. Johnston to be due to a predictable change in the concentrations of moving particles when they are slowed down by their surroundings. This Johnston-Ogston effect is of such generality that the same principles can predict the changes in the spacing of cars as they pass along a road with zones having different speed restrictions.

Another of Ogston's elegantly simple solutions to complex problems, in this case related to the strange behaviour of mixtures of proteins and long chain carbohydrates, subsequently proved relevant to the permeability of paper and gels, and even to the growth of roots.

In 1960, Ogston began what he sometimes described as the period of his life devoted mainly to helping others carry out their academic vocations, already presaged by his serving from 1955 to 1959 as chairman of the editorial board of the Biochemical Journal. He moved to the Australian National University as the Professor of Physical Biochemistry - a field which was the precursor of modern molecular biology, in which he was one of the earliest protagonists, in which physical methods are used to study biological processes.

He stayed in Australia until 1970, when he returned to Oxford to serve with distiction as President of Trinity College (over the wall from Balliol); the Trinity College residential building in Rawlinson Road, Oxford, is named "Ogston House" after him. After his retirement from this office in 1978, he continued to help others by serving on and eventually chairing the Council of Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham, until 1984.

The Royal Society recognised Ogston's outstanding contributions to chemistry by awarding him the Davy Medal in 1986, and he was made an honorary fellow of Balliol (1969) and Trinity (1978) Colleges, Oxford, and of the Biology Department of York University (1990). In 1962 Ogston was elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, and the University of Uppsala (where Svedberg and Tiselius founded the field of physical biochemistry) in 1977 awarded him the honorary degree of MedD.

The tangible legacy that Ogston left to the scientific world by finding simple solutions to complex problems is clear from the published record. The intangible legacy of example and affectionate guidance that he left to his students of all ages can be illustrated by his own words from a 1970 lecture to the Australian Biochemical Society: "For science is more than the search for truth, more than a challenging game, more than a profession. It is a life that a diversity of people lead together, in the closest proximity, a school for social living. We are members one of another."

Oliver Smithies

Alexander George Ogston, biochemist: born Bombay 30 January 1911; Fellow, Balliol College, Oxford 1937-59 (Honorary Fellow 1969); Reader in Biochemistry, Oxford University 1955-59; FRS 1955; Professor of Physical Biochemistry, John Curtin School of Medical Research, ANU 1959-70 (Emeritus); President, Trinity College, Oxford 1970-78 (Honorary Fellow 1978); Vice-Chairman, Central Council, Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham 1976-80, Chairman 1980- 84; married 1934 Elizabeth Wicksteed (one son, three daughters); died 29 June 1996.