Professor Geoff Sykes Pioneer of Bioinorganic Chemistry
Geoff Sykes was one of the UK’s foremost academic researchers in the field of biological chemistry. He was a pioneer of bioinorganic chemistry, the study of how metals, often in trace amounts, control the life of cells. The strength of this area today, with its significant impact and potential for medical sciences, owes not little to the research Sykes performed at Leeds and Newcastle Universities.
He was born Alfred Geoffrey Sykes in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, in 1934 and emerged from humble origins through the local grammar school. He excelled at school sports: one report read “the sooner Sykes leaves school and goes to play for Huddersfield Town, the better”. But a chemistry set received as a Christmas present set him on the road to academia.
After studying chemistry at Manchester University and postdoctoral studies in Australia and the United States, Sykes started to climb the academic ladder at Leeds University in 1961.
He moved to Newcastle upon Tyne in 1980 where he was appointed Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at Newcastle University. His total dedication to scientific research and enormous productivity conflicted with the limited ambition of some of his colleagues at that time. Not surprisingly there were disagreements and not everyone approved of his management style. Syke’s standards were extremely high and he was no lover of compromise.
At Leeds University Sykes built a fine reputation in mechanistic inorganic chemistry and had commenced his research in bioinorganic chemistry. He developed the latter area to the full at Newcastle and put us on the map as a world-leading centre for research on the metals of life. Sykes’s studies included some of the most important biomolecules: metal-containing compounds called cytochromes, ferredoxins and ribonucleotide reductases.
A major interest was the blue copper proteins, for example plastocyanin, which mediates electron transfer in photosynthesis. Sykes became one of the foremost investigators of biological electron transfer, a process fundamental to human existence. Unravelling the mechanisms of electron transfer through proteins has proved to be one of the most challenging areas of modern chemical research. Sykes competed with the most illustrious investigators including the great American chemist and doyen of electron transfer, Harry Gray. Alongside Sykes’s bioinorganic studies were discoveries in mainstream inorganic chemistry, especially the preparation of new complexes of molybdenum, one of the trace elements on which life on earth depends.
Geoff Sykes attracted outstanding co-workers as PhD students and postdoctoral fellows, and parties at his house were always multinational gatherings. And there, they could appreciate that Geoff had other interests, classical and jazz music, gardening, birdwatching and photography.
Many of Sykes’s former co-workers have gone on to impressive careers of their own, mainly in the field of bioinorganic chemistry. Among those he trained were Karl Wieghardt, Director of the Max Planck Institute in Mlheim, Germany and Dr Thirumalachari Ramasami, now Secretary to the Government of India, Department of Science and Technology. Whenever I was abroad at a meeting, the Newcastle person everyone had heard of was Geoff Sykes. As Harry Gray has said, “Geoff was Mr Newcastle to most chemists’. He was a charming, friendly person, whom others did not forget.
Geoff Sykes’s scientific output was prolific, with nearly 200 publications from his pre-Newcastle days and more than 250 from his time at Newcastle. Of these, over 100 were in prestigious American journals such as the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Sykes edited Advances in Inorganic Chemistry for many years and wrote a popular review on blue copper proteins for this journal in 1991.
The Royal Society of Chemistry recognised his achievements with the award of the Tilden Lectureship (1984-85), and he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1999. By then he had published well over 400 scientific articles of consistent high quality and so the accolade was richly deserved but inexplicably late.
As a teacher Sykes was scholarly and did what students like: he wrote on the blackboard and would have hated Powerpoint. In 1966 he published a textbook, Kinetics of Inorganic Reactions, still recommended as an aid to undergraduate courses. His bioinorganic research interests were reflected in his teaching and helped to make the Newcastle chemistry courses distinctive from the more traditional courses prevalent at many other UK institutions. He was a co-founder of the medicinal chemistry degree at Newcastle, which has attracted many very talented students to the North East.
Alfred Geoffrey Sykes, chemist: born Huddersfield, Yorkshire 12 January 1934; Lecturer in Chemistry, Leeds University 1961-70, Reader 1970-80; Professor of Inorganic Chemistry, Newcastle University 1980-99 (Emeritus); FRS 1999; married 1963 Liz Blakey (two sons, one daughter); died Newcastle 10 July 2007.
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