Biosciences News and Events Publication

Obituary: Professor David Wilkie, born 6th August 1923, died 3rd March 2013

5 April 2013

A picture of Ian as a young handsome RAF pilot

My colleague David Wilkie who died recently at the age of 89 was an extraordinary and endearing character. As an undergraduate at Glasgow University he played football for Queens Park, then an amateur club in the professional Scottish league, having previously represented Scotland as a schoolboy. David's studies were interrupted in 1942 when, at the age of just 19, he volunteered for service in the RAF.

Following training on Spitfires in South Africa David was transferred to Burma where he flew Hurricanes in the war against Japan. When the war ended he remained in the Far East where he flew Dakotas and DC3's and helped evacuate prisoners of war from the infamous Changi prison in Singapore. During this period David was the personal pilot to Air Officer Commanding (AOC) RAF Burma, Hugh Saunders (later Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Saunders). Pilot Officer Wilkie returned to Scotland in December 1946 saying that he had flown every day for four years and never wanted to fly again. He never did.


After completing his undergraduate studies David remained in Glasgow where he joined the laboratory of the distinguished geneticist Guido Pontecorvo who was then engaged in the fine structure mapping of genes in the the ascomycete fungus, Aspergillus nidulans. His PhD complete, David was appointed in 1954 to a Lectureship in the Department of Botany, University College London where he was to remain for his entire academic career.

Ian's BBQ in 2011 when he was pleased to meet his old colleagues

At UCL David initially continued research on the genetics of Aspergillus showing among other things that the mutagenic wavelength of UV light was 260 nm rather than 280 nm and, thus, was inducing changes in nucleic acid and not protein. In 1959-1960 a Rockefeller Foundation Visiting Fellowship to the Genetics Department of the University of Washington, Seattle signalled a change of research direction. In Seattle David came under the 'inspired guidance' (his words) of Herschel Roman and Don Hawthorne who were among a small group of geneticists who foresaw the enormous research potential of working with a single celled organism, the budding yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Over the next ten years David's work explored the possibility that, in addition to genes located on the chromosomes in the nucleus, yeast also possessed genes in the mitochondrion, the organelle that generates most of the cell's energy. This was a risky, even foolhardy, research venture in the early 1960's but with typical patience and resourcefulness David was able to show that not only did such genes exist, but also that they were linked together on a small mitochondrial 'chromosome.' By 1963 the work had advanced sufficiently to publish a monograph entitled The Cytoplasm in Heredity which was the standard reference in this area for a number of years.


Mitochondria remained the focus of David's research for the next 30 years (he often described himself as a 'mitochondriac'). From the 1970's his thoughts increasingly turned to the role of mitochondria in cancer; in particular as targets for chemotherapy. Once again, this was a controversial topic albeit one that has received increasing credence as more and more is understood about these fascinating organelles. Throughout David's career at UCL he was a much loved undergraduate teacher, a kind and generous mentor to postgraduate students and a patient and meticulous examiner.  David retired from UCL in 1988 but carried on his research a couple of days a week in a corner of my lab. My students loved having him around; perhaps in part because there was always shortbread for afternoon tea!


I feel honoured to have shared my working life with such a distinguished scientist and such a remarkable man.

Jeremy S Hyams
Emeritus Professor of Cell Biology, UCL

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