Obituary: Keith Dalziel
Thursday 13 January 1994
KEITH DALZIEL was an outstanding biochemist, who was responsible for training and inspiring a whole generation of enzymologists in the quantitative aspects of enzyme action. Yet this should not be all that he is remembered for. He shared with Artur Schnabel - his favourite interpreter of Schubert's piano music - the supreme virtues of spiritual profundity, his grasp of the overall structure of any work, and subtlety of expression. One trait of Schnabel's which was not shared by Dalziel was a lack of superficial technique; Dalziel was an adept experimental scientist of the highest order, as well as being an outstanding theoretician. His mind did not outstrip his fingers.
He was educated at Grecian Street Central School in Salford, and left school in 1935 at the age of 14 to become a laboratory technician at Manchester Victoria Memorial Jewish Hospital. During the Second World War, after washing bottles in the laboratory during the day, he attended evening, degree classes at what was then Salford Technical College. Every so often the air-raid sirens would sound, and the lecture would be interrupted as students and lecturer descended into the Tartarus of the basement. At the all-clear, they would return to continue the lecture. It was a terrible atmosphere in which to study. Fortunately for science, and for those who came to know him, Dalziel escaped the horrors of war, not 'down some profound dull tunnel' but into the pure light of a London external First Class Honours Bachelor of Science degree, in 1944.
In 1943 he married Sallie Farnworth, a nurse whom he first met when he was 15, and moved to Oxford, taking up the position of Assistant Biochemist at the Radcliffe Infirmary. He stayed at Oxford until 1955, where his 'boss' was Dr JRP O'Brien, Reader in Clinical Biochemistry. Perhaps in those early days it was O'Brien that fostered his uncompromising and rigorous approach to science that was later to bear such rich fruit, both in his publications and in his research students. A breakthrough came when he took up a Rockefeller Travelling Fellowship in Medicine to work on enzymes with Hugo Theorell at the Nobel Institute in Stockholm. Theorell, a Nobel Prizewinner, was an inspiration; and, like Dalziel, he adored music as well as science.
Enzymes are catalysts: they speed up and control chemical reactions in living cells; they are proteins which look after the 'rhythm' of cellular metabolism. The speed by which an enzyme transforms one chemical substance, or substrate, into another, the product, is termed the kinetics of an enzyme, and it can conveniently be summarised in the form of an equation. Most enzymes act on more than one substrate, and their kinetics are very complex. Dalziel went to join Theorell to work on an important class of two-substrate enzymes, the dehydrogenases, which control oxidation and reduction mechanisms in cells. It was while working on these enzymes that Dalziel developed general rules for analysing any two-substrate reaction, and he published these in a seminal paper which appeared in 1957. This work was quickly recognised as being of a fundamental nature in helping our understanding of enzyme reactions, and in predicting the kinetic behaviour of enzymes.
After returning briefly to Oxford from Stockholm, he went to Sheffield University as Sorby Research Fellow of the Royal Society in 1958. Sir Hans Krebs had brought great esteem to Biochemistry at Sheffield during his tenure as Professor from 1945 to 1954. One of the lecturers at Sheffield in the late 1950s was Vincent Massey, an enzymologist with many similar interests to Dalziel. This was a very productive period, and Dalziel and Massey certainly brought a 'critical mass' in enzymology to Sheffield. This ended in 1963, with Massey leaving to take the Chair in Biological Chemistry at the University of Michigan in the US, and Dalziel returning to Oxford, this time to join Krebs's department as a University Lecturer in Biochemistry.
He was at first associated, loosely, with Exeter College. Such a loose association was not uncommon among 'non-College Fellows'. Dalziel was not sorry that he was not a Fellow in one of the 'gentlemen's clubs' (his words), and so was not immediately enthusiastic when the possibility of becoming a Fellow of Iffley College was raised with him. However, Sir Isaiah Berlin won him over to the modern egalitarian atmosphere of the postgraduate establishment which became known as Wolfson College. He was very happy there, becoming a Fellow in 1970, and an Emeritus Fellow in 1983.
His influence was felt strongly within Biochemistry at Oxford and he became part of the Internationally-renowned Oxford Engine Group. It was believed that he had never had a submitted paper turned down or even modified by referees. He was tremendously dedicated - a workaholic. He set himself very high standards of integrity that proved a fine and lasting example to his postgraduate students. One aspect of this, certainly not forgotten by his students, was that you spent the first week at the bench calibrating pipettes. When Dalziel gave you a number, you jolly well knew it was correct.
A good example of this was shown in his work on the engine glutamate dehydrogenase. He had purchased some radiolabelled substrate from the suppliers at Amersham, and the experiments gave some strange results. Now with Daiziel, when results were odd, it wasn't the experimental technique that was at fault, it was the compound. He contacted Amersham and explained that his results showed that their compound must be only 20 per cent pure. They were incredulous - of course all their compounds were 100 per cent pure - but when they came to Oxford to see the experiments for themselves they had to admit the impurity of their compound.
As a teacher, Dalziel was considered the fastest lecturer in the department; one had to write faster in his third-year lectures then at any other time. He had a stern exterior, although he occasionally revealed glimpses of the warmth underneath. On such occasions Dalziel was generally to be seen seated playing a piano, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and a pint of beer ready to hand.
National and international recognition came while he was at Oxford. In 1967 he was Visiting Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Michigan; he was on the editorial boards of the European Journal of Biochemistry and Biochimica Biophysica Acta, and on the Advisory Board of the Journal of Theoretical Biology. He was a member of several Science Research Council committees. In 1975 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, was an associate editor of the society from 1983 to 1987, and served on the Council from 1979 to 1980. In 1978, he was promoted to Reader in Biochemistry at Oxford.
He took early retirement in 1983, despite the attempts of Rodney Porter, the then Professor of Biochemistry at Oxford, to persuade him otherwise. At his retirement dinner he stated that his aims were to spend more time with his wife and family, to learn to play the piano better, and to play more golf. Although he had piano lessons when young, pressure of scientific work forced him to give them up. Now he could return to them.
Dalziel was keenly interested in the interpretation of music. At Fellows' dinners at Wolfson, which he almost invariably attended, he would happily spend time discussing performances (including his own) of Mozart, Beethoven (Les Adieux was his favourite sonata) and Schubert.
Throughout his life Keith Dalziel was engaged in the search for truth; for him, truth in the natural world was to be found through science, and truth in the spiritual world was to be found through music.
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