Professor of cell biology

Born: January 3, 1934;

Died: August 8, 2017

PROFESSOR Adam S G Curtis, who has died aged 83, was a scientist, diver, gardener and microscopist and the first professor of cell biology in the UK. Coming from an artistic background, he became interested in science during a rainy holiday where a bored neighbour, at a table next to his, started educating him in chemistry. After studying at Cambridge, he moved to Edinburgh where he did a PhD on the biophysics of development and met his future wife Ann.

In his postdoc in London he worked with Michael Abercrombie developing a novel microscopy technique, interference reflection microscopy, that could measure the distance between a cell and the surface it adhered to. He was also a pioneer in applying stringent morphometric analysis to cell biology. In 1962 he became a lecturer in zoology at University College London and in 1967 he moved to Glasgow to become professor of cell biology. By this time he and Ann had two daughters Penelope and Susanna.

In Glasgow he continued to investigate the mechanisms and physical underpinnings of cells’ adhesion to each other and to materials. Working with sponges that he sourced on his diving expeditions to the local reefs in the West of Scotland, he continued to study how cell-to-cell adhesion is controlled and how it is involved in morphogenesis. The biochemical and physical mechanisms and underpinnings of cells’ adhesion to each other and to materials continued to fascinate him.

Shortly after his appointment he created an honours course for cell biology, where he taught lively practical classes and lectured in his irreverent style. He was always exceedingly generous with his time where students were concerned, particularly at reading parties, one of his enthusiasms, and held, appropriately enough at the marine biology station in Millport.

Always a keen gardener, he had an allotment where he got talking to Chris Wilkinson, another keen gardener and professor of electronic engineering at Glasgow. This started their joint exploits in bioengineering.Their first collaborative work was on designing electronic interfaces to ‘talk to nerve cells’ a theme that would continue to occupy their joint work for decades to come. Another area of common interest was to apply the engineer’s ability to control surface structure at the micrometer and the nanometer level to biology. Adam was keen to use devices made with these techniques to investigate contact guidance, how cells respond to material topography, and use these to instruct cells to ‘do the right thing’. Together they founded the Centre for Cell Engineering in 1997 as a collaborative centre cutting across engineering, chemistry and biology with members from both Strathclyde and Glasgow universities.

As part of several parallel and successive international grant consortia, Professor Curtis built his reputation in bioengineering, tissue engineering and nanobiomaterials, attracting a string of talented researchers to Glasgow. All this was very much helped by the parties that Adam and Ann hosted when project meetings were in Glasgow, or to welcome new people and last but not least the celebrations they held for the cell biology honours students after exams.

After becoming Professor Emeritus in 2004, Professor Curtis did not give up science. He came up with and established the proof of concept for nanokicking, a unique concept where a surface is subtly jiggled to instruct stem cells to differentiate into bone.

At the University of Glasgow, he served as head of department, head of division, and director of the Centre for Cell Engineering. He was particularly active on the university library committee.

Always a very dynamic member of scientific societies, he was president of the Society for Experimental Biology 1993-1995; as one of the founding fathers of the Tissue and Cell Engineering Society UK he was its president 2001-2003. His work has been recognised nationally and internationally with several prizes including the Cuvier Medal of the Zoological Society of France in 1972, the President’s Medal from the UK Society for Biomaterials, the Chapman Memorial Medal, IMMM, 2008. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Society of Biology, and of Biomaterials Science and Engineering (World Biomaterials Society).

Outside the University, he was a very active member of the Scottish Sub Aqua Club, heading out to the lochs whenever he could, mostly on the West Coast. Unfortunately, on a dive in the Mediterranean in 2001 he brushed against a fish, got stung, and acquired a recurrent bacterial infection.

As a supervisor Professor Curtis was generous, critical and inspiring. He gave guidance and a lot of freedom to develop, fostering people’s ideas and supporting their progress wherever he could, irrespective of origin or gender. It is notable that he was a very merit based scientist, not interested in hierarchy but able to relate to all and support hard work and talent from whomever it came. As a scientist he was always interested in the latest developments, and being an original thinker, he pioneered several fields such as quantitative biophysical measurements on individual cells, bioengineering of interfaces, and nanobiotechnology among others.

Attending many meetings on cell and developmental biology, biomaterials or nanoscience, Professor Curtis apparently had the amazing ability to listen deeply to talks and lectures while fast asleep; this often utterly surprised the speakers who did not reckon with a very pointed and always appropriate question from his corner.

Professor Curtis the scientist can not be separated from the person who was generous, and kind, always interested and at times utterly charming. He followed his artistic ancestry by sketching, drawing, and painting for his own entertainment and mosaic for display. He and Ann often entertained, and an invitation to dinner was to look forward to an evening with excellent food (with produce from the allotment), superb wines, and an entertaining chat about current and sometimes arcane topics.

He is survived by Ann, Penelope and Susanna, and two grandchildren.