Joseph Lamb obituary

Other lives: Professor of physiology at the University of St Andrews

My father Joseph Lamb, who has died aged 87, was professor of physiology at the University of St Andrews, chairman of the Save British Science society (SBS) and the initiator of one of the first shareholder campaigns to tackle excessive executive pay.

He was born in Brechin, near Aberdeen, the son of Joe, a tenant farmer, and Agnes (nee Fairweather), a schoolteacher. He contracted tuberculosis at an early age and spent a year reading encyclopedias during his recovery. He was a self-proclaimed “idle chap” at Brechin high school, although he went on to shine at physics. He won a place to study medicine and gained a PhD at the University of Edinburgh, after a brief spell maintaining radio masts for the RAF at Bletchley, in Buckinghamshire.

In 1969 Joe was appointed to the chair of physiology at St Andrews, in one of the university’s poorest performing departments. Over 24 years he led its reform, bringing in grants from the British Heart Foundation, supporting research staff with time and equipment (often leading to wild budget overspends) and steadily building its reputation as a respected centre of teaching and research.

These experiences led him to write about the financial challenges of running a science department. He was soon invited to become the chairman of SBS, an influential organisation consisting of around 1,500 scientists that lobbied Margaret Thatcher’s government to maintain science funding.

In the 1990s his attention shifted to social concerns, including the growing disparity between executive and worker pay. Writing to British Gas as a small shareholder, he tabled a resolution proposing that all staff should share in future percentage pay increases. His letter was copied to the Guardian, which published it on the front page. For the next six months he endured several media interviews, mountains of correspondence, chaos at the AGM (the board was barracked by thousands of angry shareholders) and ultimately a failed resolution voted down by the pension funds.

Joe will be remembered by his students as a great educator, by his peers as a champion of science, by the establishment as a nuisance and by his family as a kind and generous man.

He is survived by his wife, Bridget (nee Cook), whom he met when she was working at Blackwell’s Publishing on one of his textbooks; by their sons, James and me; by the children, Angie, Joe, John and Andrew, from his first marriage, to Olivia (nee Horne), which ended in divorce; and by 11 grandchildren.

William Lamb

The GuardianTramp

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