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Bryan Clarke

Geneticist

Geneticist

Born. June 24, 1932; Died: February 27, 2014

Professor Bryan Clarke, who has died aged 81, was a distinguished geneticist who established the Frozen Ark project to preserve the DNA of endangered species worldwide. In so doing, he created a databank that could be used to regenerate the animals themselves.

A former lecturer in zoology at Edinburgh University, his work in medical research concentrated on two principal areas: the factors that maintain genetic variation within populations and the genetic changes that take place during the origin of species. His special interest was in land snails that inhabit the high volcanic islands of the Pacific.

He was born in Nottinghamshire where his father dealt in leather for the local shoe manufacturing businesses, but he spent much of his youth in the Bahamas, where his interest in snails and their shells was fostered. His father was killed by a bomb that hit the Cafe de Paris close to Piccadilly Circus in 1941 and he was brought up by a family friend in Boston, Massachusetts, where he attended the Fay School. After the war, he won a scholarship to Magdalen College School in Oxford, and read zoology at Magdalen College. He did his national service in the RAF from 1950 to 1952 and then did research with the Nature Conservancy at Oxford before moving to Edinburgh University in 1959 where he was appointed assistant lecturer in zoology.

His time in Edinburgh greatly advanced his study of a wide variety of species but he took immense care to catalogue and research the snail - with its numerous stripes and wide variety of shell colourings. Much of this early research was centred on Professor Clarke's analysis of the English grove snail, Cepaea nemoralis, whose shell colours and patterns vary enormously — reddish, brownish, yellow or whitish.

His time at Edinburgh (1959 - 71) proved a most active period in Professor Clarke's career. Not only was his research acknowledged internationally but his reputation as a lecturer and academician was well established. He was an outstanding teacher and all his students responded to his detailed knowledge and his enthusiasm and zest for the subject in hand.

Professor Clarke used to invite groups of his students to his flat in the New Town for relaxed tutorials. He would start the proceedings by reading a paper which provoked a lively discussion. Often in the summer the discussions would take place in the square's gardens.

In the 1960s, his research became centred on the Polynesian snail Partula, which was then abundant over much of the South Pacific. His research in Polynesia led him to conclude that the species was extinct in the wild and he returned to Edinburgh to breed them in his laboratory: all too often the snails escaped and were crunched by passing students. In his laboratory, however, Professor Clarke bred five out of seven species that he had carefully brought back, feeding them on porridge, tissue paper and lettuce.

Professor Clarke had risen to the post of Reader in the Zoology Department at Edinburgh but in 1971 he was appointed Foundation Professor of Genetics at Nottingham University. It was a post he filled with much distinction until his retirement in 1997 (after which he became professor emeritus), serving as head of department from 1971 to 1976, and again from 1981 to 1993.

So successful was his breeding of the Partula snail that he was able to send specimens to various zoos throughout the world which created an international breeding programme. In 1994, some of the snails were reintroduced to a specially-protected trial reserve on the Pacific island of Moorea. The experiment proved that the snails could be successfully re-bred.

From that extensive exercise, Professor Clarke was instrumental in founding, with his wife Dr Ann Clarke, the Frozen Ark project to save samples of frozen cells containing DNA from endangered species. The project has proved hugely successful and is operated in more than 20 zoos and zoology research units.

When the project was launched in 2004, the priorities were to concentrate on scientific research and to help currently endangered animals to remain healthy. In a film shot in his laboratory, Professor Clarke explained the aims of Frozen Ark with typical wit and candour: "The pleasure one gets from listening to Mozart is akin to appreciating nature. We have a duty to preserve and save the beauty of nature." He then added with a smile: "I wonder if anyone accused Noah of playing God."

Professor Clarke became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1982 and was awarded the Linnean Medal for Zoology and elected a Foreign Member of the American Philosophical Society in 2000.

He married, in 1960, Ann Jewkes, who survives him with their son and daughter.

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