Paul Bolwell, 1946-2012

June 14, 2012

A distinguished biochemist, who defied doctors' orders to receive a prestigious degree at the University of Oxford while in the grip of motor neuron disease, has died.

Paul Bolwell was born in Monmouthshire on 13 December 1946 and educated in Newbridge before reading botany at Pembroke College, Oxford. He continued his studies at the University of Cambridge and then returned to Oxford for a DPhil, awarded in 1970 for the thesis "The control of enzyme levels in the biosynthesis of plant phenolics".

Professor Bolwell then took a break from academic life and went back to Newbridge to work on the construction of the M4 motorway and as a supply teacher. He resumed his scientific career in 1978, first at the University of Leeds, researching physiological and biochemical changes during the fertilisation of brown algae, and then at Cambridge, studying cell wall development in the common bean.

A growing reputation and publication record secured him a lectureship in 1984 at City University London, but the limited time available for research spurred him to move two years later to Royal Holloway, University of London. Promoted to professor of biochemistry, he remained there until his retirement in 2011.

His new base and team allowed Professor Bolwell to develop his radical ideas on the mechanism of the oxidative burst of plant defence to fungal pathogens. His eminence in the field was acknowledged in 2004 when he was appointed editor of Phytochemistry.

By 2010, his life was increasingly constrained by motor neuron disease. Yet a friend decided to submit his impressive list of scientific publications to the University of Oxford for the prestigious degree of Doctor of Science.

When the submission was successful, Professor Bolwell was determined to attend the ceremony at the Sheldonian Theatre on 3 March, and travelled from London in an ambulance against his doctors' advice. He received a standing ovation, with the vice-chancellor Andrew Hamilton descending to the floor to speak to him.

Peter Bramley, professor of biochemistry at Royal Holloway, remembers Professor Bolwell as "a proud Welshman" with a passion for rugby, beer and jazz, who had "the stubborn determination, over many years of experimental work, to develop novel ideas about how plants defend themselves against pathogens. Even though against some of the conventional wisdom of the time, I believe his work will go into the textbooks as the correct mechanism that plants adopt. His research may also play a role in the creation of more efficient biofuels."

Professor Bolwell died in a London hospice on 13 April and is survived by his brother Richard.

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Reader's comments (1)

I was looking for my dissertation lecturer on Google when I came across this article. Professor Paul Bolwell was my Tutor at the university of Royal Holloway between 2004 and 2007. I remember him as an honest and wise gentleman. It's very sad to read that he has passed on in life.

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