Robert Pritchard, 1930-2015

An eminent geneticist who ran the department where DNA fingerprinting was discovered has died

May 7, 2015

Robert Pritchard was born in Wandsworth, London, on 25 January 1930, and grew up in the area, although he was evacuated during the war to Radstock in Somerset. He studied botany at King’s College London and went on to complete a PhD at the University of Glasgow, where he researched genetic recombination in a filamentous fungus. He then joined the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council Microbial Genetics Unit (1959-63), shifting to the emergent field of bacterial genetics, and spent a year as a research associate at Kansas State University.

In 1964, still only 34, Professor Pritchard was recruited to the University of Leicester to set up a department of genetics. He served as head of department from 1964 to 1983 and as professor of genetics from 1964 to 1989, when he retired and became emeritus. Throughout this time, he ran a large research group focused on mechanisms that regulate the commencement of DNA duplication in bacterial cells and how that process is coordinated with cell division – crucial in helping us to understand the uncontrolled cell growth found in cancer.

Early to recognise the possibilities of the recombinant DNA technology of the 1970s, Professor Pritchard skilfully built up the department into one of the most important in the country. Among those recruited was Alec Jeffreys, now professor of genetics at Leicester, who went on to pioneer the technique of DNA fingerprinting.

Alongside his research and administrative duties, Professor Pritchard spoke out frequently – and sometimes controversially – on scientific issues, whether it was the increasing prevalence of antibiotic resistance, strategies for preventing the spread of Aids, the involvement of patients in their own care pathways, or the ethical dimensions of surrogacy and in vitro fertilisation. From 1987 to 2002, he went to play an even larger role in public life as a Liberal Alliance (later Liberal Democrat) councillor on Leicester City Council and Leicestershire County Council, where he became the leader of the party group.

Notably unprejudiced, his open-minded nature was illustrated by an instance where he befriended some “drop-outs” on the beach while on study leave at the University of California, San Diego. He spoke eloquently in court on behalf of one who had been accused of a crime on the basis of little evidence.

Professor Pritchard was struck down in 2002 by a neurological condition that left him almost totally incapacitated and required long-term hospitalisation. He died on 12 April and is survived by a daughter.

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