Obituary: Philip Spensley

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The Independent Online
Philip Calvert Spensley, tropical scientist: born London 7 May 1920; Technical Officer, Royal Ordnance Factories, Ministry of Supply 1940- 45; Research Chemist, National Institute for Medical Research, MRC 1950-54; Scientific Secretary, Colonial Products Council, Colonial Office 1954-58; Assistant Director, Tropical Products Institute, DSIR 1958-61, Deputy Director 1961-66, Director 1966-81; freelance consultant in post-harvest science and technology 1981-84; Editor, Tropical Science 1984-94; married 1957 Sheila Fraser (one son, three daughters); died London 22 May 1994.

PHILIP SPENSLEY presided over the growth in size and in reputation of the Tropical Products Institute, in Chatham, Kent. Now incorporated into the Natural Resources Institute, part of the Overseas Development Administration, it is a world centre of excellence for research and development on the post-harvest problems affecting the plant and animal resources of developing countries. Spensley was the institute's Director from 1966 to 1981.

He was born in 1920 and educated at St Paul's School, in London, and Keble College, Oxford, where his undergraduate course in Chemistry was interrupted by five years' war service as a technical officer at the Royal Ordnance Factories. His MA degree in 1946 was followed in 1947 by a BSc for organic chemical research in compounds of therapeutic interest. For research in the same field he was awarded a DPhil in 1949 and was elected to Fellowship of the Royal Society of Chemistry in 1954.

From 1950 to 1954 he worked at the National Institute for Medical Research on the chemistry of steroids with the future Nobel Laureate Dr JW (now Sir John) Cornforth, with whom he shared an enthusiasm for tennis. This work led to a visit to Kenya and Tanzania for research into the production of steroids from sisal. Spensley developed and patented a process for extracting hecogenin, a starting material for the chemical eventually used in oral contraceptives, for which he was awarded Medical Research Council/

National Research Development Corporation Inventors Awards in 1963 and 1971. This work led to the establishment of a steroid production industry in East Africa.

In 1954 Spensley joined the Colonial Products Laboratory as Scientific Secretary to the Colonial Products Council. When, in 1958, the laboratory became the Tropical Products Institute he was appointed as an Assistant Director. He was promoted to Deputy Director in 1961 and Director in 1966 when TPI became part of the Ministry of Overseas Development.

During the early 1960s he co- ordinated TPI's work on fungal contamination of groundnut meal and other tropical plant products. The work led to the discovery of a highly toxic group of compounds - for which he coined the name aflatoxins - and opened up a field which has received world-wide attention ever since.

As Director of TPI he travelled widely, particularly in the developing countries, in search of new roles for the institute. He served with distinction on numerous international committees, notably as Vice-Chairman of the International Union of Food Science and Technology's Committee on the Needs of Developing Countries from 1974 to 1978, and as a member of the FAO/WHO/Unicef Protein Advisory Group from 1968 to 1971. He was UK Representative to the CENTO Council for Scientific Education and Research from 1970 to 1978, and a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences Committee for Study on Post-Harvest Losses from 1977 to 1978.

He brought great industry and enthusiasm to every undertaking, and was always eager to take on new responsibilities, especially those requiring organisational skills and meticulous attention to detail - qualities for which he was noted. Indeed, his colleagues awaited his return from overseas trips with a degree of trepidation, wondering what re-organisation, conceived in a foreign airport, was to be visited upon them.

During an active retirement he worked for the Civil Service Commission, served on the Council of the Royal Institution and various committees of the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Royal Society, and was editor of the journal Tropical Science.

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