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Obituary: Basil Lythgoe - Obituary

Colleagues will be saddened to learn of the death on 18th April 2009 of Emeritus Professor Basil Lythgoe, former Professor and Chair of the School of Organic Chemistry.

Born in August 1913, Basil Lythgoe was educated at Leigh Grammar School, an experience he shared with several eminent chemists (including Professor M G Evans who held the Chair in Physical Chemistry at Leeds between 1939 and 1949). His academic career began with a county scholarship to the University of Manchester. After graduating with first class honours in Chemistry, he completed his doctoral studies in 1936. He spent a brief spell at ICI at Huddersfield as a research chemist before returning to academia in 1938 to work with his former supervisor Professor (later Sir) Ian Heilbron, later moving to join Professor (later Lord) Todds research team, first at Manchester and then at Cambridge, where he became a lecturer and subsequently a Fellow of Kings College. In 1946, he married the mathematician Kate Hallam, whom he had met in Manchester; they were to be married for 57 years until her death in 2003. He joined the University in 1953, in the School of Organic Chemistry, becoming Chair of the School from 1968 to 1971.

Professor Lythgoes research was always focused upon the field of natural products, their constitution and their synthesis. Early work included research into the carotenoid pigments (under Professor (Sir) Ian Heilbron), involving, inter alia, the isolation and study of the structure of myxoxanthin, the characteristic pigment of blue-green algae; and the synthesis of vitamin A. Later, in association with Professor (Lord) Todd, he studied the nucleoside components of nucleic acids, fundamental constituents of all living cells, including the ribonucleotides, involved in the implementation of the genetic code. It was this work on nucleotides which led to the synthesis of the complete structural elucidation of adenosine, cytiaine, hypoxethin and uridine.

During the 1950s, following his move to Leeds, Professor Lythgoe became interested in the composition of plants poisonous to stock animals an interest piqued, it was said, by the abundance of yew clippings he encountered upon his walks around the abbeys and monasteries of North Yorkshire. He developed an extensive knowledge of the chemical constituents of plants and trees, and his work on poisonous plants, in particular, led to the preparation and study of a new class of simple compounds, the primary and secondary aliphatic azoxy-compounds. Perhaps the major topic of his research at Leeds, however, was the synthesis of the D vitamins. His characteristic thoroughness and preparation meant that he was later able to extend this work to the synthesis of the biologically active metabolites, the hydroxy vitamins, work which continued into his retirement from the University in 1978.

There can be no doubt that Professor Lythgoes work contributed hugely to the furtherance not only of scientific knowledge but of chemistry, and organic chemistry in particular, as an academic discipline. He was honoured in 1958 with election to the Royal Society and the Tilden Lectureship of the Chemical Society; in 1978 with the Synthetic Organic Chemistry Award of the Chemical Society (in association with Ciba-Geigy UK Ltd) and the Simonsen Lectureship of the Chemical Society and in 1979 with the Chemical Society Award for Organic Synthesis. Throughout his career, however, he strove not just to achieve pure research excellence, but to link scholarship and teaching with research effectively. Although he was first and foremost an academic, Professor Lythgoes strong sense of civic duty resulted in his involvement with a wide range of the committees which manage the details of everyday life in large institutions. He was for many years a member of the various staff committees concerned with salaries and conditions, and served on a number of ad hoc academic review groups and interview panels the latter being a role for which he was often in demand due to his incisive questioning and ability to analyse closely and sum up with admirable clarity the relative qualities of applicants.

Professor Lythgoe was a brilliant scientist, highly respected by his students and his colleagues. His teaching style was often challenging he shone in debating ideas and arguing logic - and even friends would acknowledge that he did not suffer fools gladly. But his formidable intellect and phenomenal grasp of chemical facts and their appropriate contextualisation were as useful to colleagues discussing a research problem as to first- year undergraduates, and he was always willing to set aside his own work in order to discuss problems or study ideas with anybody who approached chemistry with a questing mind and sound preparation. His clear, concise and stimulating lecture style was admired by generations of students. Indeed, the former Vice-Chancellor Lord Boyle, commenting upon a typically interesting though unyielding letter from Professor Lythgoe concerning matters relating to his imminent retirement, noted that he had such a respect for the particular qualities of Lythgoes mind that I should be very sorry for him to end his time at the University without laying on some occasion as a mark of respect. The occasion was duly found, in the form of an academic symposium on Natural Product Chemistry and a dinner attended by august colleagues both internal and external.

During the education cuts of the 1970s, Professor Lythgoe wrote to the then Vice-Chancellor expressing his concerns that without the continued recruitment of excellent teachers, as well as researchers, his beloved subject was in danger of becoming a dark continent, misunderstood and inaccessible to all but the most specialised trained academic. With characteristic modesty about his own academic standing and achievements, Professor Lythgoe said that although only a small minority of usare capable of achieving excellence, many of us respect it and somemyself included, try to be propagandists for it. As a summary of his tenacious pursuit of his academic ideals throughout a long and highly successful career, it perhaps best encapsulates, in his own words, the legacy he leaves behind to both the University and to his subject.

Professor Lythgoe will be remembered with enormous respect by all those with whom he worked and studied. He is survived by his sons John and Andrew and five grandchildren.

Published: 8 May 2009