Obituary - George Guy Dodson (1937 - 2012)

Biography | Publications Curriculum Vitae | Videos | Slides | Articles | Obituary 

George Guy Dodson (1937 - 2012)

ACA RefleXions, Spring 2013



Guy Dodson, only 75 at his death, was world-renowned for his research on the three-dimensional structure of biologically important proteins, particularly insulin; for his studies of the mechanism of action of numerous enzymes; and for establishing two first-class centers for the study of proteins, the York Structural Biology Laboratory and the structural biology group at NIMR, the National Institute for Medical Research, in northwest London.

From 1967-1976 Guy was in Dorothy Hodgkin's laboratory at Oxford University where he played the leading role in determining the structure of the first polypeptide hormone, insulin, and later related the hormone's chemical and biological properties to its atomic structure. His work on insulin continued following his move to York University in 1976, especially with the use of mutant and chemically modified versions of the hormone designed for analysis of its structure, assembly and action. He also collaborated closely with various pharmaceutical companies that prepared insulins that could be used to improve diabetes therapy.

Guy had strong opinions about the importance of crystal structures to biology, and at York his group focused on enzymes that catalyze chemical reactions. At both Oxford and York, Guy skillfully organized large research groups. Appointed professor at York in 1985, he built up a truly international team including a number of Polish and Russian crystallographers.

In 1993 he was invited by the Medical Research Council to establish x-ray crystallography at NIMR. Again, he was enormously effective with collaborations on enzymes involved in infection by the malaria parasite; on proteins required for the control of RNA metabolism in tuberculosis; and on the structure of the infectious molecules known as prions.

Though he became professor emeritus in 2004, Guy never really retired. His collaborations on research concerning the cellular receptor for insulin and research on the malaria enzymes both yielded outstanding success in the last months of his life.

Guy and his twin brother, Maurice, were born in Palmerston North, his parents having emigrated from Britain to New Zealand a decade earlier. He went to Dilworth school, Auckland, where the senior mathematics and sciences teacher, Donald Gray, encouraged lateral thinking, logical reasoning and intelligent questioning to achieve an understanding of processes, rather than simply memorizing information.

At Auckland University College, Guy obtained his PhD for research using x-ray analysis combined with analytical chemistry. The crystallographic research on large biological molecules in Dorothy Hodgkin's laboratory at Oxford, where he went as a postdoctoral research assistant, interested him greatly and he stayed on as a research fellow until Hodgkin's retirement in 1976.

Dorothy's laboratory proved to be a paradise where Guy could receive a thorough grounding in biological perspectives from such scientific leaders as JD Bernal and Don Steiner, and in chemical structure and mechanism from Jack Dunitz and Bob Williams. He also met and, in 1965, married Eleanor MacPherson.

Through Guy's enthusiasm and knowledge of protein structure and Eleanor's mathematical skills they began to accumulate, initially through their research on insulin, scientific achievements that led to their election as fel- lows of the Royal Society in 1994 and 2003 respectively. Their warmth and inclusiveness was greatly appreciated by generations of students, postdoctorals and visitors.

Guy was active in the local community, notably as the chair of governors of Archbishop Holgate's school. Because he was so charming, he was popular with scientific colleagues from many disciplines and from countries as disparate as India, China and Cuba. He is survived by Eleanor, three sons and a daughter.

- The Guardian article by John Skehel and Keith Wilson, Jan 28th, 2013



Guy Dodson with Dorothy Hodgkin. Photo taken by a York staff photographer probably in the early 1980s
when Dorothy visited York to work on the big insulin paper.

Some Reflections about Guy Dodson Written for the York Chemistry Department by Rod Hubbard

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 mold 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 modeling 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.

The growth of the lab was due to two major influences: the funding by the Protein Engineering Initiative, which established molecular biology at York, and various large consolidated awards funding the infrastructure; and fund- ing by 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 the people at 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 depended. 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 structures of various 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). The energy and excitement this developed in the lab, brought many superb postdocs – 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 postdoc at 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 to York as a postdoc. So, we sat down and invented a project to engineer myoglobin so as to change its binding properties. That grant brought Tony to York. On another occasion, when York decided to promote the growth of large, more commercially aware groupings, we had a riotous evening writing a pomp- ous document full of phrases such as ‘pioneering posture,’ and ‘exquisitely poised’. That one didn’t get funded (perhaps fortunately).

Traveling with Guy was a total experience. All who went with him to vari- ous meetings, conferences, and holidays will have their own stories. One that I remember, but which was probably just 'a day in the life' for Eleanor ocurred at the IUCR meeting in Bordeaux in the hot summer of 1990. Don’t forget – this was a time before mobile phones or ubiquitous email. I had been invited to speak at a session on hydrogen bonding and water structure, but before the meeting I was at an IBM meeting in the Swiss Alps. 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 to meet Guy at lunchtime on the day of my talk and he said he would bring some food with him. Now, Bordeaux was full, no hotel rooms, so I was going to stay with them. Because the farmhouse was a long way from Bordeaux, Guy and Eleanor caught the train from a nearby village in the early morning - but left a student’s poster in the station waiting room. I flew into Bordeaux that morning – it was stinking hot (40̊C) 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 40̊ 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. We had to mug passing graduate students 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), met up with Eleanor, who said we could travel back together to the farmhouse by train. But I had had enough and caught a taxi to the airport, hired a car, 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. We then enjoyed a glorious relaxed evening: a chaotic meal, after which we all - Phil and Carol Evans were there also - ended up in the swimming pool. We stargazed while the Dodson and Evans children were playing football in the orchard. After a few glasses of wine, 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. Afterwards the other committee members dropped Guy and Wayne Hendrickson at about 9 pm on the edge of Bordeaux with no transport or chance of getting back. So, they had a rather rub- bish 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. Guy claimed he watched sweat dribble off his chest during a sleepless night.

Every day was a new day for Guy. He was one who reveled in engaging with people. Martin Karplus described him as 'the really charming New Zealander'. In conversations with Guy you got the full force of his charm and enthusiasm for life and science and felt you were the center of his world.