Gerald Elliott 26th January 1931 - 6th March 2013
The media this week has been running quite a few features about the 60th anniversary of the publication of the DNA structure in Nature, and of course the other papers that appeared with it.
However, the anniversary has an extra meaning for me.
As regular readers might know, my father Gerald was a PhD student in the King’s College Biophysics Unit where the x-ray photos of DNA were taken, though not at the time – he didn’t arrive there until 1954, the year after the papers appeared. The first person he shared a lab with at King’s was Ray Gosling, Rosalind Franklin’s PhD student, and the person who took the famous photograph 51. Gerald would sometimes talk to me about the lab, and the people. He also wrote about it a little bit, see for instance here.
The 1953 papers in Nature also played a role in Gerald’s going to King’s to be a graduate student, after he read them as a Physics undergraduate at Lincoln College Oxford.
Sadly, Gerald didn’t live to see the DNA 60th anniversary. He died suddenly on March 6th, aged 82, in Oxford.
It’s a few weeks now, obviously. Though it doesn’t feel that long.
Indeed, it’s now a whole month since his funeral, also in Oxford, on March 25th.
The time since has gone incredibly quickly – ‘in a blur’ as people say.
And I’ve been meaning to post something here, of course – but somehow it has never got finished.
Not easy to sum up your father, perhaps.
Actually, my brother Gavin had one decent go when he tweeted:
RIP Gerald Elliott – Aldermaston Marcher, Labour Parliamentary Candidate, OU Professor, Maverick Scientist & my Dad http://t.co/7CcRAcxY3a
- and all of that is true.
I used to mention Gerald here quite a bit, so the Occam’s regulars likely know something about him, though I don’t think any of them knew him ‘offline’ except the sadly-missed Maxine Clarke. Sometimes Gerald would even show up on the blog to comment. For an account of his life and career there is a sort of first-draft obituary over here, penned by one of Gerald’s Open University colleagues with some help from me. There will be more obituaries to come, hopefully including at least one in-depth scientific one.
I think perhaps the easiest way to get something – anything – up here is just to repeat what I said about Gerald at the funeral last month. Both my brother and I had the job of trying to somehow sum Gerald up, as a father and friend in my brother’s case, and as a father and scientist in mine. A slightly tough ask, given we had six minutes each (!), but we did our best. Anyway, here’s mine (with one or two links added):
[Oxford March 25th 2013]
Sixty years ago, almost to the month, Francis Crick and Jim Watson published probably the most famous scientific paper of the 20th century, a single page on the structure of DNA.
The 1953 paper also marks the start of Gerald’s career as a research scientist. He would often recount how it was reading the paper as a final year physics undergraduate at Oxford that convinced him that biology was the place where, as someone wanting to do scientific research, he could put his training in physics to the best use. Thus in 1954, the following year, he went as a graduate student to the same King’s College laboratory where the X-ray pictures that had helped lead to the DNA structure had been taken. There he joined the orbit of figures like Maurice Wilkins, and became part of the great rise of biophysics and biological structure determination of the second part of the 20th century.
Gerald was lucky in coming upon his professional path in life early, and having found it, he never wavered much from it. Like many scientists, retirement hardly slowed him down; he was publishing experimental papers until only a couple of years ago, and published a detailed account of his ideas on muscle – the scientific problem that had most preoccupied him through his career – only last year. Indeed, on the day he died, the last email Gerald sent was to Professor Hugh Huxley, one of the great figures of muscle biophysics, whom Gerald would have first met in the early 50s. So – a scientist to his very last day.
The arc of Gerald’s scientific career, of course, was also the arc of the family’s history – of our history, as my brother Gavin has already described. It took Gerald from King’s in the 50s and 60s, where my mother and my brother and I entered the picture, to Cape Cod and Pittsburgh in the late 60s, back to London when Gerald joined the OU, and lastly to Oxford. Thus our lives were bound up with his career in science.
Scientists leave behind them their body of published work, but also other things – they leave a scientific family, made up most obviously of their graduate students and others they have taught or mentored. Gerald was very proud of this scientific family, which included a Nobel Prize Winner, and the Vice Chancellor of a major British University, and many other eminent researchers, some of whom I can see with us today.
Beyond this immediate scientific family there was also a much bigger circle of Gerald’s scientific colleagues, friends and acquaintances. If you went to a conferences with Gerald, as I did a number of times, you would always be introduced to more members of this ‘Gerald diaspora’, who came from many countries across the world. He would introduce you to them – often in their own language, or something a bit like it, as Gerald was prepared to chance a few words in nearly a dozen languages. If they were particularly impoverished he would also often ask you to buy them a beer.
Finally, in searching for something to sum Gerald up as a man and a scientist, I remembered that he had often told me how much poetry had meant to him – particularly TS Eliot’s work, and especially the Four Quarters. Gerald once gave me a book of Eliot’s poems – I was probably one of the rarer male recipients! – and in looking through it I came across the following words. They are from the final stanza of Little Gidding, the last of the Four Quartets, and I think they would stand as well as any words could as an epitaph for Gerald.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time