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donald nicholson

Donald E Nicholson, BSc, PhD, DSc, FIBiol, FRSC

Dr Donald Nicholson, former Senior Lecturer in the Department of Microbiology, died on 12 May 2012.

Born in 1916, the son of a Methodist minister, Donald Nicholson completed a London external degree in Colour Chemistry at Huddersfield Technical College.  With sponsorship from the British Dyestuffs Corporation, he then undertook postgraduate research and was awarded his PhD (also by the University of London) in 1941.  He went on to work as an industrial chemist for the Boots Pure Drug Company in Nottingham, and was engaged on the production of sulphonamides, the first synthetic antibacterial drugs.  Following the end of the war, ICI, wishing to encourage the integration of research between industry and higher education, decided to sponsor a number of research fellowships in UK universities; in 1946, Donald Nicholson was appointed as ICI Research Fellow in Chemotherapy in the then Department of Bacteriology at Leeds.  Initially, he studied the nature of diphtheria toxins and the growth requirements of the tubercle bacillus.  His fellowship was followed by an appointment as lecturer in 1950 and promotion to senior lecturer in 1964.

As the only chemist in his department, it was almost inevitable that Donald Nicholson should be given bacterial metabolism to teach.  This coincided with an historic and exciting period when bacteria were being extensively used to determine the chemical nature of genetics and of life itself, leading to the elucidation of DNA.  More and more individual metabolic pathways (the series of chemical reactions occurring within cells) were being discovered.  In the process of his teaching, Donald Nicholson realized that what was increasingly needed was a means of integrating the multitude of individual pieces of information to complete the jigsaw and thereby encourage an understanding and appreciation of the significance – and elegance – of interrelated metabolic pathways.  This end he accomplished through the Metabolic Pathways Charts that he designed.  For five years he hand-drew the charts and had blueprints run off in the University Architect's office. The first printed copies appeared in 1960 and were warmly received by some of the best-known biochemists of the time, including the Nobel Prize-winner, Sir Hans Krebs.  Since that time, over a million copies have been printed, in a wide variety of languages. 

That there have been twenty-two editions of the Metabolic Pathways Chart is indicative of the effort needed to keep pace with the rapid growth of research in this area.  The necessarily wide and discriminating search of an ever-increasing volume of scientific literature continued to be undertaken by Donald Nicholson himself.  Although he retired from his University post in 1981, rarely can the term retirement have been such a misnomer.  He remained totally wedded to his work, which he continued to update, refine and develop.  Taking advantage of computer technology (he acquired his first computer at the age of eighty), he designed ‘Minimaps’.  These added further details, such as co-enzymes, regulation and cellular compartmentation, to his existing charts.  Essentially text-book pages brought to life, the ‘Minimaps’ became a popular format and were made available freely throughout the world.  At the time of his death, he was working on what he regarded as potentially the most exciting development of his work: the production of ‘Animaps’; the use of Flash animation to illustrate the dynamic sequences of biomechanical reactions occurring within a cell.

Donald Nicholson collaborated with Professor Stan Dagley (formerly of the Department of Biochemistry and later of the University of Minnesota) to produce a highly acclaimed volume on bacterial metabolism, An introduction to metabolic pathways (1970).  He was also a firm believer in the virtues of introducing science to as wide an audience as possible.  When he first came to Leeds, he became a prison visitor, and one lecture he gave caught the imagination of the inmates to such an extent that it led to a series of twenty-five talks. In turn, this material formed the basis of his Teach Yourself volume on Science – modestly subtitledThe Universe, Matter and Life.  Published in 1966, it must have sold in tens of thousands, since the book, with its distinctive yellow and black dustcover, seemed to be in every bookshop, on every railwaystation counter and in everyone’s bookcase.

The success achieved by Donald Nicholson’s scientific maps and charts, and his other publications, should not be allowed to obscure his contributions as a teacher.  He went to extraordinary lengths to support his students, both academically and personally.  He took a keen interest in combined degree students, and was one of the first tutors in combined studies appointed when the tutor scheme was introduced in 1972.  The extent to which his students appreciated his work on their behalf was manifest in the number who kept in touch with him during their subsequent careers.  He enjoyed a lengthy spell as departmental admissions tutor, and was key to the four-fold increase in admissions during his term of office.  His kindly welcome made countless newcomers to the department immediately feel at home.

In recognition of his achievements, Donald Nicholson was awarded an Honorary D.Sc. by the University of Huddersfield and was made one of the only two Special Life Members of the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Donald Nicholson is survived by daughters, Ruth and Rosemary, and son, Roger.

The funeral service took place on 22 May 2012, when, in Dr Nicholson’s memory, the flag was flown at half-mast on the Parkinson Building.

There is to be a Service of Thanksgiving for the life of Dr Nicholson during June.  Further details will be circulated, when available.