Obituary: Professor David Kirk
Monday 19 October 1992
DAVID KIRK was an organic chemist, internationally known for his work on steroid chemistry.
The steroids are a group of natural products which, because of their importance in the regulation of biological processes, have penetrated everyday consciousness. The contraceptive pill has significantly affected patterns of social behaviour, and no sports meeting seems complete without talk of anabolic steroids. The study of steroids is rather special, and falls in that fascinating region where chemistry, biology and medicine intermingle.
Kirk's work on steroid chemistry had over the years been generously supported by the Medical Research Council and the Cancer Research Campaign, resulting in numerous discoveries described in 200 or so publications. He was a key member of an international 'invisible college' of scientists and clinicians including several of his former Ph D students, all working on steroid problems. His key role in this was emphasised by his direction of the MRC Steroid Reference Collection, originally set up by Bill Klyne at Westfield College, in London. Although this collection had benefited from several gifts, many of the compounds were synthesised by the group working with Kirk. It finally totalled about 4,000 steroids which were made available in small quantities to research scientists and clinicians all over the world. With the recent discontinuation of research council funding, the collection has had to be transferred to an industrial sponsor, where it continues to be an invaluable asset to the scientific community.
Kirk had started into chemistry along a difficult path, taking his first degree by part-time study at the South West Essex Technical College, at Walthamstow, and gaining a first class honours degree from London University. He then joined British Drug Houses Ltd and it was here, under the direction of Vladimir Petrow, that his lifelong interest in the steroids was kindled.
His transfer to academic life occurred with his appointment to a post at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, in 1962. These must have been halcyon days, but nevertheless after three years he returned to Britain to join Bill Klyne's department at Westfield College. By 1976 he had become Professor of Chemistry, and did two stints as Head of the Chemistry Department (1977-79 and 1981-84).
With the rearrangement of science departments at London University the chemists at Westfield moved in 1984 to Queen Mary College (now Queen Mary and Westfield College). Kirk was, understandably, not keen on the move, but saw that it had become inevitable. His patient influence played a large part in the successful integration of the two departments.
In recent years, his attention had turned to the synthesis of hydroxylated steroids, the structure of the urinary lignan enterolactone, and the microbial transformations of steroids. His work was characterised by the careful application of spectroscopic (especially NMR) methods and mechanistic ideas.
David Kirk was a rather private person, and had about him a serenity and kindliness which are more and more difficult to find these days. He was devoted to his family, now including three grandchildren. It may be a surprise to colleagues to learn that Beryl and David enjoyed ballroom dancing for a number of years, and in fact were a very proficient pair. A keen gardener, he had an especial fondness for bonsai gardening and the cultivation of succulents.
His sudden and untimely death has deprived his students of a wise teacher, his research group of an excellent supervisor, and his colleagues, both at QMW and internationally, of a man whose scholarship in his chosen subject was universally recognised.
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