Obituary: Professor Charles Vernon
Saturday 10 April 1993
CHARLES VERNON, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry and Fellow of University College London, was one of the remaining links with the heroic period when Christopher Ingold and Edward Hughes, and their students at UCL, laid the foundations of mechanistic organic chemistry.
Charles Vernon was born in Plymouth but brought up in Poole where he attended the local grammar school. His lifelong interest in chemistry was kindled by his chemistry teacher, Freddy Whitelock, but too active an interest in politics caused him to fail his Higher School Certificate in Chemistry and he spent a year as a laboratory assistant at the Royal Naval Cordite Factory at Holton Heath. There he won a scholarship to take him to university but there was a condition attached, namely that he got a First Class Honours Degree or the money had to be repaid.
He entered University College London, then based in Aberystwyth, in 1939 and graduated two years later with the necessary First in chemistry. He desperately wanted to join the Royal Navy but was sent as an Experimental Officer to the Ministry of Supply, working in various Armaments Research Departments. In 1946, he returned to UCL, now back in London, and registered for a Ph D, working under Ingold's supervision. It was characteristic that he never submitted his research for a Ph D and remained 'Mr' Vernon until later awarded a D Sc. He was appointed as a part-time temporary lecturer in 1949, a lecturer in 1950, Reader in 1963 and Professor in 1967.
The whole of his academic life was spent at UCL, with a single sabbatical year at Cornell University. He was very much a product of the Hughes and Ingold era and retained an admiration and affection for his mentors throughout his life.
Vernon possessed a formidable intellect and an original mind. His lectures influenced numerous undergraduates and he was a stimulating research supervisor. His group was run on Ingoldian lines - students were thrown in at the deep end and expected to swim, as indeed most did - but he was always available to advise and cajole; and his encouragement and kindness were extended to many younger colleagues.
After his maiden research on the mechanism of rearrangements in organic compounds, Vernon carried out important studies on the hydrolysis of phosphate esters, crucial in biology. He justly criticised the unphysical concept of 'energy-rich phosphate bonds', then in vogue, and insisted that enzyme-catalysed processes be regarded as chemically, that is materially, rather than energetically linked. This foreshadowed later, bitter disputes concerning the role of ATP and pseudo-thermodynamic bookkeeping.
Kinetic studies on enzymes, the catalysts that regulate all biological processes - especially phosphatases and transaminases - followed, and Vernon was one of the first to appreciate the importance of micro-environmental effects in enzyme catalysis whereby lack of solvation endowed enormous reactivity at the active site. This concept was used to explain the origin of catalysis by lysozyme - the first time such an effect had been understood. However, typically he never codified these ideas. He was content to strike sparks for others to kindle.
In mid-career he took an M Sc by examination in Physiology, though he was already a Doctor of Science. The university kindly excused him from the qualifying exam in chemistry for which he was, in fact, the examiner. He played an important role in the introduction of a pioneering degree in Medicinal Chemistry. Later he studied the purification and mode of action of the protein Nerve Growth Factor and also biologically active peptides present in insect and snake venoms. Much of his work was in collaboration with Barbara Banks, his former student and second wife, who is a Professor of Physiological Chemistry at UCL. His output was some 150 research publications - mostly full papers as he deprecated fragmentation by preliminary communication - nearly all of the highest quality.
In view of his versatility and originality his friends can only speculate on the machinations that deprived him of election to the Royal Society.
Vernon detested physical activity, but led an intensely social llfe. His hospitality was unbounded, he could be an enchancing companion and he particularly enjoyed the company of intelligent women. He loved wine, conversation and music and often stated that he would prefer blindness to deafness in old age. A pillar of the common room, he would discourse on topics from modern philosophy (he was an admirer of Ayer) to the mishandling of the British battle-cruisers at Jutland. As a young man he was an enthusiastic socialist and had considered a political career, but he moved steadily to the right until, repelled by Thatcherism, he settled for the Social Democratic Party. He was a patriot and a pro-European. He was bored by college administration and avoided it, but such was his personality that he became one of the most influential people of his generation at UCL.
Of course he made enemies: he forthrightly spoke the truth as he saw it, insisted on intellectual rigour and refused to take the pretentious at their own valuation. The late Eighties were not a happy period for universities and he probably retired at the right time. He had hoped to complete a textbook on enzymology and to clear a backlog of research but he spent the last years in declining health.
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