John Bishop obituary

Other lives: Pioneer of molecular cell biology who trained many young scientists at Edinburgh University

My friend and colleague John Bishop, who has died aged 85, was a pioneer of molecular cell biology whose career bridged a remarkable era in life sciences – from genes to genetic engineering.

Born in Edinburgh, to Mary (nee Oliver) and Robert Bishop, John was raised in the nearby town of Bo’ness, where his father was a shopkeeper. He won a scholarship to attend George Heriot’s school in Edinburgh, and then studied genetics at Edinburgh University (BSc with first-class honours, 1957), and took a PhD in the same department. In 1959 he married Jill Spowart, a fellow student.

The couple moved to the US where John worked in the laboratory of Richard Schweet (at the Medical Research Institute in Duarte, California, and then at the University of Kentucky) from whom he learned biochemistry. He was introduced to modern cell biology during a summer at MIT, before returning to Edinburgh.

He was recruited in 1962 as a lecturer in the Edinburgh University genetics department, then under the leadership of the visionary geneticist Conrad Waddington, to introduce molecular biology, which John did in spades. In the 1960s he had five first-name papers in the journal Nature. He discovered that the building blocks (amino acids) that make up proteins are joined one by one in the growing chain in the same direction as the gene – from the beginning to the end; and, unexpectedly, that there was only a single haemoglobin gene in chick red blood cells. He also showed that each cell contains 10,000-15,000 genes.

He attracted and trained many young scientists, who were enormously influenced by his analytical skills, logical thought and creativity. He often startled speakers at scientific meetings by offering a closely reasoned but entirely different interpretation of their results – and he was almost always right. He acquired for this reason a daunting reputation, also because he did not suffer fools gladly, and was on occasion abrasive. To those who worked with him, however, he was a lion: intelligent, fearless and inspiring.

He was elected to the European Molecular Biology Organization in 1978 and made a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1980. In the 1980s he was at the forefront of the Edinburgh project that generated the first transgenic sheep – laying the foundations for the emergence of the Dolly the Sheep initiative under Ian Wilmut.

He also coordinated the bid that resulted in the establishment in 1989 of the AFRC centre for genome research at the university, which later evolved into the Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine. Having progressed through senior lecturer and reader, he was appointed to a personal chair in molecular cell biology at the university in 1989, and the following year took a sabbatical as distinguished professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. He retired from Edinburgh University in 2000.

Outside the laboratory, he was an avid player of squash and basketball, and also had a deep interest in politics and history. John’s 80th birthday was celebrated in Edinburgh by scientists from the US and Russia.

John was deeply affected by the death of his son Robbie in 1991, and that of Jill in 2003. He is survived by their son, Jonathan, daughter, Lisa, and three grandchildren, Phoebe, Sandy, and Aiden.

Richard Lathe

The GuardianTramp

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