Howard Dalton, 1944 - 2008

January 24, 2008

Howard Dalton was a distinguished microbiologist who transformed the use of science at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs while quietly fundraising to help alleviate poverty in The Gambia.

Sir Howard, who has died aged 63, served as the chief scientific adviser at Defra from March 2002 to September 2007. He was the first departmental chief scientific adviser to be appointed by Sir David King, who was then Chief Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister.

Sir Howard was parachuted into a newly created Defra. The department had risen from the ashes of the beleaguered Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which was widely criticised for its handling of the BSE crisis and the 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

Sir Howard did not enter an easy atmosphere. "It was a very inward-looking department that didn't make use of scientific resources outside," Sir David recalled.

Over the next five years, Sir Howard transformed the department's use of science.

"In his first year, he was rather disillusioned and I had to persuade him to stay on," Sir David said. "It was a matter of the department getting used to a high-profile scientist from outside and of him getting used to how the Civil Service works."

Luckily, Sir Howard was persuaded. He stayed and established a Science Advisory Council. "He began to have a really very big impact," Sir David said.

Sir Howard was born in Surrey in 1944 and did a degree in microbiology, which he followed up with a DPhil at the University of Sussex, and postdoctoral work in the US and at Sussex. He joined the University of Warwick in 1973 as a lecturer in the department of biological sciences, and he became head of department in 1999. It was at Warwick that he built up his pioneering work on the oxidation of methane by bacteria, working on how to harness the metabolic processes to develop industrial processes. His work placed him at the forefront of his field, and he was elected to the Royal Society in 1993 and received a knighthood in 2007. During his time as Defra's chief scientific adviser, he continued his research at Warwick - and he managed to publish more than 200 papers. He returned to Warwick full time in October 2007.

Over a number of years, he and his wife also ran a fundraising venture to provide facilities, equipment and gardens for schools in The Gambia. The couple had just finished constructing a house there. Sir Howard died of a suspected heart attack while playing real tennis, a long-time passion, at his club in Leamington. He is survived by his wife and four children.

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