Pioneer in the biochemistry of DNA

Born: April 28, 1924;

Died: November 16, 2018

HUGH Forrest who has died aged 94, was a renowned researcher in the field of biochemical genetics who spent nearly all of his scientific career in the USA.

He was the fifth and youngest son of Archibald and Margaret Watson Forrest. His father was a master butcher who owned a shop in Victoria Road on the south side of Glasgow which was carried on until 1984 by Hugh’s brother, Bob. The commercial success of the shop meant that Hugh and his brothers had a comfortable upbringing in Pollokshaws Road, Shawlands.

He attended primary school at Shawlands Academy before moving on to secondary school at Hutchesons Grammar School in 1935. His eldest brother, Sam, had been Dux of the school in 1931 and another brother, Jack, was also academically very able so perhaps much was expected of Hugh when he arrived.

Both he and a lifelong friend, Jack Dunitz (later to have an outstanding scientific career in the field of chemical crystallography) were the subject of strenuous but unsuccessful efforts by the rector, W. Tod Ritchie, to persuade them to drop their determination to focus on science subjects in favour of the classics - more appropriate (the rector thought) for boys of high academic ability.

His time at Glasgow University led to the award of a BSc with first class honours in 1944 after which he moved to London to study therapeutic chemical compounds at the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill. His work there led to the award of a PhD by the University of London in 1947.

His research in London had given him an interest in a group of organic compounds called pteridines and he provided evidence that these might be involved as natural inhibitors of bacterial growth and thus possibly of medical importance. From NIMR he moved on to the Department of Chemistry at Cambridge University to work under a fellow Glaswegian, Alexander (later Lord) Todd, winner of the 1957 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The focus of his work at Cambridge was pteridine biosynthesis and he was awarded a PhD by the university in 1951. Having completed this second PhD, he immediately left for the USA having been awarded a US Public Health Service fellowship to continue his studies at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech).

At Caltech he continued research into pteridines most notably biopterin – a coenzyme of many neurobiologically significant enzymes. Among his colleagues at Caltech was James Watson on his return from Cambridge after his work on DNA with Francis Crick. In later life Hugh remarked that his greatest claim to fame as a scientist was having been James Watson’s regular tennis partner.

In 1955 he moved to the University of Texas at Austin as a post-doctoral fellow, becoming a professor in 1962 and a professor emeritus in 1993. His research in Austin revealed surprising interactions of pteridines with nucleic acids and showed that naturally occurring pteridines can interfere with DNA and RNA synthesis in developing animals.

In the 1970s his research moved into new areas focused on the molecular structure of the chromosome. Much of this later work was performed using the fruit fly, drosophila, an organism which has been the workhorse for new discoveries in genetics and molecular biology.

In retirement he continued to follow closely developments in pteridine research and especially recent studies that have identified pteridines as markers for an increasing number of malignancies including breast cancer, underscoring his original conviction of their importance to medicine.

In 1976 he became involved as an editor of an academic journal, Biochemical Genetics. Remarkably, he continued as editor for over 30 years and was, to say the least, very disappointed when the publisher decided that he was too old at 88 to continue.

A key interest for him at UT was the mentoring of postgraduate students. Many of those he mentored have gone on to achieve scientific distinction including Dr Michael W. Young and Dr James P. Allison, respectively winners of the 2017 and 2018 Nobel Prizes in Medicine. He maintained an interest in teaching undergraduates and had a custom of wearing highland dress for the final lecture of each course.

He was awarded a DSc by the University of London in 1970 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1979.

In his personal life Hugh had a very definite “hinterland” outside his research. He remained a passionate Scot all his life despite leaving the country in 1944 - any meeting in the Austin area which was aimed at Scottish expatriates was almost guaranteed to attract his presence.

His interests included ballet, classical music, playing the bagpipes, wood carving, jewellery making (he was involved in an online business selling jewellery inspired by the double helix structure of DNA), stained glass and the history of science with particular regard to the Scottish contribution.

He was convinced that the geologist, James Hutton, should be regarded as having similar scientific stature to that of Charles Darwin. During his time in London he played rugby for London Scottish and in later years maintained a strong interest in following the national team on television.

He is survived by Eleanor, Anne and Hugh Watson from his marriage in 1954 to Rosamond Scott Baker (died 1985) and by six grandchildren.