Obituary: Richard Synge

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The Independent Online
Richard Laurence Millington Synge, biochemist: born Liverpool 28 October 1914; Researcher, Wool Industries Research Association, Leeds 1941-43; Researcher, Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, London 1943-48; Researcher and Administrator, Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen 1948-67; FRS 1950; Nobel Prize for Chemistry 1952; Researcher, Food Research Institute, Norwich 1967-76; Honorary Professor of Biology, University of East Anglia, 1968-84; married 1943 Ann Stephen (three sons, four daughters, and one son deceased); died Norwich 18 August 1994.

IN THE autumn of 1963, Dick Synge came to Edinburgh to attend the Labour Party's Two Way Traffic in Ideas conference hosted by Richard Crossman as Harold Wilson's then shadow secretary for education and science, writes Tam Dalyell. Suitably gratified, Crossman effusively observed that he was delighted to see a Nobel Prize-winner taking such an interest in the 'white heat of the technological revolution'. One Dick (Crossman) to another (Synge): 'Dick, why did you come?' 'Well, it's like this, Mr Crossman,' drawled this tall, lean, twinkling bow-tied figure.

I, as a Wykehamist, know better than most the propensity of other clever Wykehamists like you, Mr Crossman, to meddle in affairs which they do not fully understand - and I am here to observe exactly what you Labour Party people are up to - I don't want you to put people like me in a research straightjacket, supposing that you can direct our research to what you deem useful ends when you can do no such thing.

Tom Cottrell, then Professor of Chemistry in Edinburgh, and later first Vice-Chancellor of Stirling, could not contain his mirth at this confrontation and at an uncharacteristically nonplussed Crossman. Cottrell observed:

Dick Synge embodies the argument for allowing researchers to wander where their curiosity leads them. If you put a finger in the pie of research and try to say what has to be done, you will not have future Synges winning their Nobel Prizes.

Such was the impact of this episode that the group formulating Labour Party science policy for the 1964 general election came to use the term 'the Dick Synge factor' as shorthand for not becoming too dirigiste in government relations with the scientific community.

Dr Alan Garton FRS, who succeeded Synge in 1968 as deputy director of the Rowett Research Institute, told me yesterday:

As head of the department of protein and lipid chemistry of the Rowett Research Institute, Dick Synge commanded great respect and all the more so when in 1952 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. At times Synge distanced himself from his colleagues - we could never understand why - while at other times he would go out of his way to give encouragement. He was undoubtedly a brilliant scientist with strong views on how laboratory experiments should be conducted. Woe betide anyone who chose to disregard his advice.

Synge's colleagues testify that he was most careful not to discuss his political views in the lab. But he harboured extreme left-wing views on a number of topics. Only on one occasion did I myself receive the rough side of his tongue; and it was very rough indeed, delivered with cutting sarcasm. In 1967, I had failed to vote against the Labour government on qualified support for the American position in Vietnam. Like Joan Robinson, and a number of other academics who knew and cared about China and East Asia, Synge was contemptuous and furious. Years later in Norwich he explained how vehemently he thought the West was wrong in its attitude towards Asia.

To say that Synge was obsessed by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which indeed he was, would be to miss the point that he foresaw the dangers of nuclear radiation at an earlier stage and more clearly than most of his contemporaries. Some would say that it was eccentric that as deputy director of the Rowett he would carry his own desiccator containing the most minute quantities of radioactive carbon, and insist that a laboratory assistant proceeded him along the corridor in case someone inadvertently bumped into him. This unusual habit displayed an estimable sense of the punctilious in a very unusual and exceedingly gifted man and scientist.