Guy Dodson, who died on Christmas Eve 2012, was an inspirational
scientist who left an enduring impact on the University of York. The article below is an obituary from Keith Wilson and Rod Hubbard followed by some personal reminiscences from Rod Hubbard. See also the Official obituary, see also the York Press article and the Guardian obituary.
Guy Dodson was born in Palmerston North, New Zealand, twin brother of Maurice to whom he remained very close throughout his life. Guy studied Chemistry in Auckland where he graduated with a PhD in crystallography in 1962. His excitement at the possibilities for structural science encouraged the move to Dorothy Hodgkin’s laboratory in Oxford. What was supposed to be a short term post-doctoral position led to him becoming a central figure in her laboratory until Dorothy’s retirement in 1976.
His time at Oxford had a defining influence on his life and career. He met and married Eleanor and together they began to establish a scientific reputation and enduring worldwide network through their work on the crystal structure of insulin. Guy also embraced the Hodgkin philosophy of allowing individual talent to mature.
Guy and Eleanor have been a formidable team. Eleanor’s mathematical skills have combined gloriously with Guy’s enthusiasm for protein structure in making a significant impact across chemistry and biology. Guy moved to York in 1976 (where Maurice was already a lecturer in Mathematics) to the Chemistry Department and with Eleanor, established a protein structure research group. This was an unusual but visionary appointment by the then head of department, Dick Norman which has had three equally important impacts on the scientific standing of York.
First, there was Guy’s personal research when he was at York. Alongside detailed and thoughtful studies of structure and mechanism in systems such as haemoglobin and penicillin acylase, he pioneered effective collaboration with industry, with ground breaking work in protein engineering and structures of insulin derivatives (which are currently multi-billion dollar medicines) and on the structure and mechanism of action of industrial enzymes. This work put York at the centre of the growing field of structural biology, and ideally positioned the laboratory to ride the wave of expansion in the field in the 1980s and 90s. Among many other awards, he was elected as FRS in 1994 and a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2002. Eleanor’s contributions to computational crystallography were also recognised with her election as FRS in 2003.
Second, the combination of Guy’s passion for structure and Eleanor’s leadership in crystallographic methods created the environment which attracted talented scientists to York. Guy mentored a succession of post-doctoral fellows who went on to international prominence in their disciplines. A key quality was his enthusiasm, generosity of spirit and his willingness to devote his time to assist and advise others.
Third, there was Guy’s commitment to embedding structural insights into the lexicon of biological research. At York, this was achieved by establishing with Rod Hubbard and Keith Wilson, the York Structural Biology Laboratory (YSBL) as a research unit within the Department of Chemistry. In 1993, Guy was persuaded to also lead a Division at NIMR in Mill Hill, where his energies established yet another internationally leading research group, bringing structural insights to biomedical research.
Throughout all their time in York, Guy and Eleanor established a serious reputation for hospitality - both for visitors but also for those in difficulties. You never knew who would be staying in the various rooms of the cavernous 101 East Parade - a major party venue for decades.
Guy combined scientific enthusiasm with an impish charm and generated a generosity of spirit in all those around him. He created a laboratory in which there is to this day a real community of scientists who work together for the common good – a wonderful legacy.
In thinking back over the years, it is clear that Guy had a very important effect on the way the Chemistry Department developed.
He arrived at York in 1975 / 1976 as Dorothy Hodgkin retired in Oxford. His appointment was an extremely ambitious move by Dick Norman. Guy was not in the same mould as the other members of Department – he had essentially no experience of teaching undergraduates – and it showed (I remember his first lecture when I was taking a second year option when he was in transition to York – memorable for all the wrong reasons!). But what he and Eleanor brought to the Department was a serious, internationally connected passion for research. Guy’s lack of connection with the administrative and teaching remit of the Department was difficult for some colleagues to take – but his impact was substantial in establishing (with Eleanor) a truly world leading research presence and activity that gave the Department and York a tremendous reputation. He also generated the space and support to allow new, innovative ideas and people to grow.
Let us look at some of the impact.
There was not a great deal of research activity beyond graduate students and the odd visiting scientist in York Chemistry in the mid 1970s. Guy and Eleanor brought the first Research Council grants and post-docs, but also an international connection. There were waves of Antipodean, Chinese, Russian and Polish visitors in the 1980s, some of whom stayed. But also, the York lab was on the visiting map for leading international scientists from the US and major European labs. This raised the expectation and level of scientific engagement with the international community, which went on to infect much of the rest of the department.
Importantly, Guy provided the space and encouragement to others. This was particularly true for me as I established molecular graphics and modelling in the early 1980s; Guy was also central in getting my New Blood position in 1983 (though he never did appreciate the difference between Computing Service and Computer Science – my lectureship was a very odd joint Chemistry and Computing Service position!! which didn’t last long). Together we had fantastic fun as the Protein Structure Group grew dramatically through the 1980s.
There were two major influences on the growth of the lab during the 1980s. One was the Research Council funding (first the Protein Engineering initiative which established molecular biology in York, then the various large Consolidated Awards which funded the infrastructure). The other was the industrial collaborations. The first of these was the Novo experience. I will never forget walking into a room in Copenhagen with Guy in the mid 1980s and being handed a one page summary of what Novo were proposing as a collaboration. The Novo team walked out and left us to consider – Guy and I looked at the sheet and in stunned silence tried to grasp that they were offering £1M over three years with very little paperwork (that is about £2.5M in today’s money). Just an agreement that we would work on some interesting proteins. This money and the continuation over the following decades provided the core flexibility on which the lab grew. But this also led to some amazing discoveries – the structure of the first protein produced by recombinant methods, the insulin work (design of monomeric insulins and structures of crystal preparations designed to give longer acting insulins) and various industrial enzymes (amylase, lipase, cellulose, etc). At this time, the most important pre-requisite for a crystallographic lab was access to pure protein and the samples that arrived from Novo were turned into a series of high profile papers (many in Nature etc). The energy and excitement this developed in the lab, brought many superb post-docs – some of which (e.g. Gideon Davies) stayed. Also, this tradition of working together with industry led to the various large grants I had with GSK, Celltech, Chiroscience, Karobio, Accelrys and so on through to the late 1990s. Looking back, it is amazing how the lab grew and took over much of D block during the 1980s, seemingly without a great deal of fuss, meetings or arguments. It just happened naturally.
We also had great fun writing grants. Tony Wilkinson was a post-doc in Harvard when I was a visiting scientist there in the mid-1980s. He wrote to Guy who suggested he talked to me. When I got back to the UK, Guy and I decided one afternoon to write a grant to bring Tony as a post-doc to York. So, we sat down and invented a project to engineer myoglobin to change its binding properties. It was written that afternoon, submitted, funded and that brought Tony to York. On another occasion, the University had its first stirrings of promoting the growth of large, more commercially aware groupings. We had a riotous evening writing a pompous document full of phrases such as “pioneering posture”, “exquisitely poised” as we made a bid for a “Centre for Biomolecular Design”. That one didn’t get funded (perhaps fortunately).
Finally, an anecdote that summed up the experience of being with the man.
Travelling with Guy was a total experience. All who went with him to various meetings, conferences, holidays etc will have their own stories. The one that stands out in my experiences (but which is probably just “a day in the life” for Eleanor) was the IUCR meeting in Bordeaux in the summer of 1990. Don’t forget – this is a time before mobile phones or ubiquitous email. I had been invited to speak at a session on hydrogen bonding and water structure – but the days before my talk, I was at a meeting in the Swiss Alps with IBM. Guy and Eleanor had rented a farmhouse that they thought was near Bordeaux – but turned out to be 90 km away in Bergerac. I had arranged before we left York to meet Guy at lunchtime on the day of my talk and he said he would bring some food with him. Also – Bordeaux was full, no hotel rooms, so I was going to stay with them. As I said – the farmhouse was way out of Bordeaux and Guy left with Eleanor to catch the train from the nearby village early in the morning – but left a student’s poster in the station waiting room. I flew into Bordeaux that morning – it was stinking hot (40oC) and the meeting was being held at an out of town campus that was a concrete desert. I arrived at the campus and – quite remarkably – found Guy where he said he would be. He had remembered to bring lunch – but had also invited all the people he had met that morning to join. So – there we were – in this concrete desert with little shade in 40 degree heat, cowering under a shrub bush, sharing half a crushed baguette and a melted 50g of brie scraped out of Guy’s backpack, between about 6 of us. You had to mug graduate students who passed by with bottles of water to get a drink. I gave my talk (the room was packed, but it was beyond a sauna and I am sure I was hallucinating by the end of it) and met up with Eleanor, who said we could travel back together to the farmhouse by train etc. But I had had enough and caught a taxi to the airport, hired a car and picked up Eleanor and drove her and the student (Xiao Bing) via the station to pick up the poster (she had missed the poster session), back to the farmhouse – where we had a glorious relaxed evening with a chaotic meal, ending up in the swimming pool with Phil and Carol Evans, gazing at the stars while the Dodson and Evans children were playing football in the orchard. After a few glasses, I collapsed into the bed vacated that morning by Dorothy Hodgkin and so ended an excellent day – for me. But Guy had stayed on for an IUCR committee meeting. At the end of it, the other committee members all jumped into their cars and left Guy and Wayne Hendrickson (an eminent US crystallographer) at about 9pm on the edge of Bordeaux with no transport or chance of getting back. So, they had a rather rubbish Vietnamese meal and then Guy managed to find one of the only rooms left in Bordeaux – a garret in the eaves of a house with no air conditioning, where he said he watched sweat dribble off his chest as he spent a sleepless night. And so ended a typical day in the life of Guy.
Every day was a new day for Guy. He greeted all around him with enthusiasm, but most importantly with interest - Guy was somebody who generally revelled in being with and engaging with people. Martin Karplus always described Guy as “the really charming New Zealander”. If you were in a conversation with Guy – you were the centre of the world and you got the full force of his charm and enthusiasm for life and science.
Guy embodied all that is good about a life in science; York and the Chemistry Department was extremely fortunate that he came.