Chemist, molecular biologist and artist

Born: November 24, 1931;

Died: August 26, 2016

GRAHAM Cairns-Smith, who has died aged 84, was a successful artist who sidelined his talent to focus on his scientific career and fascination with the building blocks of life.

As a schoolboy he had already impressed the hanging committee of the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) and went on to exhibit there and hold numerous one-man shows but the mental energy required for his creative output detracted from his growing interest in evolution. He gave up art and, for half a century, concentrated on developing his theory of how life began.

Now best known for his popular science book, Seven Clues to the Origin of Life, he first published his “crystals as genes” hypothesis – that the self-replication of crystals could be a bridge between biologically inert matter and organic life – in 1966.

Since then the Kilmarnock-born academic has lectured on every continent on the globe, broadcast on his theory around the world and seen his thinking discussed by the evolutionary biologist and writer Richard Dawkins in his book The Blind Watchmaker, said to be the most influential work on evolution in the last 100 years.

Cairns-Smith was the son of Scottish lawyer Alexander Findlay Cairns-Smith and his half-French, half-Belgian wife Louise. Educated at Kilmarnock Academy and Cambusdoon Prep School, Ayrshire, he completed his schooling at Fettes College, Edinburgh where he was taught art by local artists Robert Heriot Westwater, Willie Wilson and Denis Peploe, son of Scottish colourist Samuel Peploe.

Having come to the attention of the RSA as a teenager, he later took classes at Glasgow School of Art and staged successful one-man shows, on one occasion selling 30 out of his 36 works shown at Glasgow’s McLellan Galleries. Cairns-Smith, who painted landscapes and abstracts, mainly in oil, also showed in Edinburgh and was hung in both RSA and Society of Scottish Artists exhibitions. His art is included in the Argyll Collection of renowned artists’ work.

However, his interest in science, fostered by his mother, whose father was an amateur astronomer, and by his housemaster at Fettes, led to him studying at Edinburgh University where he graduated BSc in 1954. He followed that with a PhD in 1957, becoming an assistant lecturer at Glasgow University that same year and lecturer three years later.

By 1972 he had given up painting and his main obsession had become simple non-nucleic acid genetic systems which he thought may have been important in the earliest stages of the evolution of life, or which might form the basis of artificial systems able to evolve – the genetic takeover. He had originally been trying to make a molecule with a memory but it was so difficult that he began to think about how life started. He was sure it was not a mini DNA and thought the answer was to look at simple life forms which could pass on information and mutate. This interest in systems based on crystal growth processes led him to inorganic chemistry.

As a scientist, he had a tremendous ability to explain difficult concepts, a skill illustrated in his Seven Clues to the Origin of Life, published in 1985, and written, as a detective story, in a way that those without the benefit of his background could grasp. It has since been translated into nine languages and sold more than 40,000 copies.

A decade later he produced Evolving the Mind, a book on the origin of consciousness.

A member of Glasgow Royal Philosophical Society, which awarded him the Thomas Graham medal in recognition of being an outstanding scientist able to lecture to a general audience, he was also elected a Fellow of Institute of Biology in 1984 and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in1994.

Both modest and unassuming, he was also persistent, gregarious and a born communicator. He lectured at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, at the Hay-on-Wye festival, the Sorbonne and various American universities and was patient, kind and encouraging to those working on their own challenging scientific theories.

Ultimately, although his ideas of evolution did not attract the necessary funding to enter mainstream science, his brilliant creative mind has left a legacy that continues to inspire students and scientists internationally.

Outside that world he was an accomplished host who greatly enjoyed entertaining – he had once won the Daily Telegraph’s Scottish Wine Taster of the Year and co-founded Glasgow’s Western Wine Club. Other passions included croquet and visiting France.

Predeceased by his son Adam, he is survived by his wife Dorothy Anne, their two daughters and five grandchildren.