Reporter 453, 5 June 2000


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Emeritus Professor Reginald Dawson Preston FRS died on May 3

Preston (no first names in the formal academic world of his generation) was born in 1909 in Leeds, the son of a local builder. He studied Physics and Botany at Leeds before a PhD and then post-doc work at Cornell in the United States. Returning to Leeds as a lecturer, he soon found himself in a unique position. He was virtually the only person in the country in 1948 with any real background in both physics and botany, in possession of an electron microscope. He had only to play his cards right to be successful - and he did, brilliantly. For over twenty years, he was the countryís foremost expert in the ultrastructure of the plant cell wall (and favourite consultant to the timber treatment industry). Even to this day, if you open a biology textbook and see an electron micrograph showing the alignment of cellulose microfibrils in a plant cell wall - the odds are that it will be one Prestonís pictures.

The creation of the Astbury Department of Biophysics was Prestonís final great enterprise. With virtually no support by any senior member of staff from the various research groups blended together at its inception, Preston single-handedly created a viable department and a trail-blazing undergraduate course. It has all gone now - but if the academic successes of its graduates and the affection with which the department was held are used as criteria, then it was an outstanding success.

As a widely-respected elder statesman, Preston was always in great demand to chair committees both within the University and elsewhere (giving rise to the departmental catchphrase "of which I am chairman"). He chaired every committee you could think of. To my knowledge he ran the University library committee, and the Royal Society committee for expeditions and was a President of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society.

The Preston I met when I entered the Biophysics Department in 1965 was only a shadow of his former self. The tragic deaths of both his first wife and his son - coupled with the strain of running a department, increasingly under threat on all sides, had taken its toll. But he still carried the authority of a great scientific figure and I feel some sense of pride in having known him. There were giants in those days - and together with Astbury and Manton, Preston did much to make X-ray diffraction and electron microscopy the prime tools of modern biology that we now take for granted.

He was hands-on to the end. I can still picture him in a darkened room, glasses raised to his forehead, squinting at a projected electron micrograph, suggesting in that thoughtful, nasal voice of his, that all the interesting features were only artefacts.

His death came after a well-earned, long, peaceful retirement with his second wife Eva.

John Lydon

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