Willie Russell obituary

Other lives: Molecular virologist who was a founding member of Scientists for Labour

In 1984, my father, the molecular virologist Willie Russell, who has died aged 88, was appointed chair of the Department of Biochemistry at St Andrews University, and there he established a virology unit that continues to thrive today. He remained at St Andrews until his retirement in 1995.

In 1994 he was a founding member of Scientists for Labour, the group of Labour members which educates the party about the importance of science, and in 1997 served as its first chair.

Willie was born in Glasgow, the son of Nora (nee Peoples), a bookstall assistant at Kelvingrove Art Gallery, and Hugh Russell, assistant clubmaster at the Scottish Constitutional Club. His father died when Willie was seven. His mother’s passion for education inspired him to win a scholarship at Allan Glen’s school, and he went on to Glasgow University, graduating with a first in chemistry, and then a PhD in organic chemistry.

After national service and two years in industry, he joined the Medical Research Council’s Experimental Virus Research Unit in Glasgow. His research there demonstrated that the genetic information of herpes viruses was DNA, not RNA, as previously thought.

In 1962 he married Dorothy Brown and two years later he joined the division of bacteriology and virology at the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill, north London. In 1977 Willie was appointed head of the division and editor of the Journal of General Virology.

In 1982, Dorothy died suddenly of a subarachnoid haemorrhage when my brother, Iain, and I were teenagers. After this shock, our family returned to Scotland, where my father joined the staff of St Andrews University. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1988.

My father was a committed Christian socialist, prominent in his local Labour party in both London and Scotland. Loved and respected for his transparent honesty, he persuaded colleagues to act in concert by his example and by reasoned arguments.

He was devoted to the Boys’ Brigade, too, a commitment that began when he joined the 227th Glasgow company in 1942 and that spanned more than 40 years. The movement gave him a love of music (through it he learned to read music, and play the cornet and euphonium) and an interest in public service, laying the foundations of an inquiring and practical faith.

After his retirement he settled in Crail, moving back to St Andrews for the last 18 months of his life.

He is survived by his second wife, Reta (nee Brown), whom he married in 1985, his stepchildren, Maggie and Willie, my brother, Iain, and me, and six grandchildren.

Lucy Russell

The GuardianTramp

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