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Professor Anthony Russell Clarke, 1959-2016

Tony Clarke obituary

Professor Clarke Emma Cordwell.

2 August 2016

Professor Anthony Clarke, who contributed to the science and life of the School of Biochemistry for over 30 years before retiring in 2014, has died at the age of 57. His friends and colleagues Steve Burston, John Collinge, Ian Collinson, Steve Halford, Mark Lorch and Richard Sessions offer a tribute.

Tony - or as many knew him, Clarke - was a brilliantly flamboyant scientist, wit and raconteur. To his friends, students and colleagues Clarke was chaos incarnate. Anyone who worked with him can testify to the apparent disarray of his lab and life. The humdrum cycle of the working week didn’t impinge on Tony’s habits. For Tony there was no such thing as ‘work/life balance’, there was just Life. Sometimes the most appropriate thing to do with life was to head out to sea on his beloved boat, at other times the lab was the place to be. His wayward lifestyle made Tony a challenging person to work with; society doesn’t care for chaos, it prefers tidy plans, filed reports and scheduled meetings. Tony never attended staff meetings (he was very proud of that).

And so to many it was incredibly difficult to pinpoint how or why his group and indeed his mind worked so productively. It appeared to the outsider that disorder reigned. In fact true chaos ruled; chaos from which, as in nature itself, beauty and order emerge. Of course something is needed to trigger the emergence of order from a chaotic system. And in Tony’s case the attractor around which order condensed was his unwavering insistence on experimental rigour and reproducibility. Inspiration, creativity, curiosity: Tony had these in spades. Everyone who ever worked with him couldn’t help but admire his intellect, wit, charm and passion. And so they overlooked, as best they could, his social transgressions. Most of his exasperated superiors let him get on with his research, content with his prolific outputs; the wise garnered his genius. Meanwhile his PhDs and postdocs rallied around trying to keep his admin on track by digging out the most important forms and documents hidden in his office’s archaeological filing system (the deeper in a stack, the older the documents). This remained a workable system threatened only by the occasional tectonic movements that disrupted the order.

Tony literally had an encyclopaedic knowledge - gained when very young by devouring the family Encyclopaedia Brittanica. He was an avid twitcher, brilliant sailor and cook, with an immense passion for English and American literature. And a sun worshipper extraordinaire. Above all, Tony was an outstanding and intuitive scientist and superb teacher. He received a SERC Personal Fellowship at 26, a Lister Fellowship at 36 and a personal chair at 41, churning out seminal work in enzymology, protein engineering, protein folding and prion disease throughout his career. His lectures were legendary, inspiring hundreds of undergraduates into the research arena, many of them to his own lab. Amazingly, he mentored over 30 postgraduate students through their PhDs, many of whom went onto illustrious careers in the UK and around the world. Tony was one of a dying breed of scientists, uninterested in prestige, accolades or politics, driven solely by discovery, communication and education. His research career was cut short following an accident and brain injury; before that, in the years between 1980 and retirement, his contributions to biochemistry and molecular biology are renowned.


Read the full tribute on the School of Biochemistry website.

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