Imperial College London

A tribute to Brian Selby Hartley FRS, 1926-2021


A photo of Brian Selby Hartley FRS with his pipe

A tribute to Brian Selby Hartley FRS, 1926-2021, by Emeritus Professor Howard R. Morris.

Every scientist who had the pleasure and privilege of knowing Brian Selby Hartley FRS will be greatly saddened to learn of his recent passing at the age of 95. He was one of the sharpest minds of his generation, a man full of ideas, expressed with enthusiasm, shared generously without expectation of reward, and some of them gems conceived decades before they could be properly exploited as the world finally caught up.

Looking back

Recognising that at the fundamental level science is measurement, Brian had a keen interest in analytical methods, developing some classics such as the fluorescent Dansyl labelling of proteins and the elegantly simple diagonal electrophoresis method for disulphide bridge assignment. That interest led to our first meeting when he attended a talk I gave on the development of new mass spectrometric strategies for sequencing proteins, on joining the University Chemical Laboratory in Cambridge in 1970. Brian’s questions stood out as both challenging and thought-provoking especially since he had not been introduced to that technology previously, and we soon started to collaborate.

In 1972 I joined the staff of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology and Max Perutz assigned me to Brian’s group in Fred Sanger’s Protein and Nucleic Acid Chemistry (PNAC) Division. There Brian was always available for helpful and insightful discussions in his office - if you could survive the pipe smoke! - and his unrivalled knowledge of protein chemistry shaped much of my own thinking in how to combine the physics of spectroscopy with the practical mechanistic solutions to day–to-day problems in both basic sequencing and the discovery of new post-translational modifications of key relevance to protein function. They were exciting times and discoveries came thick and fast in the optimal LMB working environment which Brian had helped to create.

A vision for the Department: putting Imperial Biochemistry on the map

In 1974 Brian invited me for dinner one evening in his College, and to my surprise announced that he was going to leave the LMB and take the Chair of Biochemistry at Imperial College London, vacated by the retirement of Nobel Laureate Sir Ernst Chain of Penicillin fame. Brian wanted me to join him as one of his two lieutenants (the other being Chris Bruton) and we would be responsible for putting his vision for the Biochemistry Department into practice in both research and teaching.

[Brian] was one of the sharpest minds of his generation, a man full of ideas, expressed with enthusiasm, shared generously without expectation of reward. Emeritus Professor Howard R. Morris Senior Research Investigator, Department of Life Sciences

At that time the Department had no undergraduate courses, only an MSc, and a limited research repertoire including microbiology and physiology, albeit housed in a relatively new Wolfson-funded building and with a unique semi-industrial pilot plant with thousands of litres of fermentation capacity inherited from Professor Chain!

Brian transformed the Department completely within his first five-year term as Head, putting Imperial Biochemistry on the map both as a top-level national Biochemistry Research and Teaching Centre and as a London flagship for Molecular Biology research in addition to its other subject strengths, attracting cohorts of new undergraduates to its newly designed research-oriented BSc courses in Biochemistry and Biotechnology. These brought valuable income to allow expansion of the Departmental staff, and a notable metric of its research strength was that it achieved the highest research income per capita of academic staff of any Department in the College within five years of Brian’s arrival. Other key figures who helped with this success included rising stars Peter Rigby, David Glover and David Lane, all of whom went on to develop their own spectacularly successful careers.

Brian’s reputation also allowed the College to attract established researchers from Cambridge including his former colleagues David Blow and Alan Fersht, although not to the Biochemistry Department which by that time was running out of space, so the Departments of Physics and Chemistry respectively were the main beneficiaries. The roll-call of people influenced by the combination of Brian’s brilliant mind with his approachable nature is too long to give in a short eulogy, but perhaps special mention should be given to his students Michael Neuberger (becoming Deputy Director of the LMB) and Nobel Laureate Greg Winter.

Shortly into his second term of office, Brian took issue with the Formula Vote distribution from the College Administration to the Department, which he felt should have been greater, in particular to fund his ambitions to expand the new and promising field of Biotechnology in the College. The impasse led to him standing down as Head of Department and concentrating on the creation and funding of a Centre for Biotechnology associated with the Biochemistry Department in 1982.

The Centre for Biotechnology

Brian had been a co-founder of the recently launched genetic engineering company Biogen, and his industrial experience was invaluable in steering the new Centre as a successful unit until his retirement in 1991. Once again, with apologies for not producing an exhaustive list, but perhaps special mention should be made of Brian’s key influences on Tony Cass, David Leak and Conrad Lichtenstein and their successes during those years and in their later careers.

A truly brilliant and inspirational scientist

A photo of Brian Selby Hartley FRS at home at the dining table with a glass of wine

I last had the pleasure of meeting Brian at the 50th Anniversary celebration of the founding of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. Although obviously more frail in body, his mind was as active as ever and he showed a genuine interest in what his former colleagues were doing, in the topics discussed in the research presentations, and he was not slow in letting us know what we should be working on now!

Brian Selby Hartley, a truly brilliant and inspirational scientist who has been an enormous and positive influence on so many people. Thank you Brian most sincerely for everything that you did for us, and may you rest in peace.

By Emeritus Professor Howard R. Morris
(Head of Department, Biochemistry 1985-88)


Emeritus Professor Howard R. Morris FRS

Emeritus Professor Howard R. Morris FRS
Department of Life Sciences

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