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MRC Prion Unit
From fundamental research to prevention and cure

Obituary: Professor Anthony Russell Clarke 1959-2016

Tony Clarke

Founder Programme Leader, MRC Prion Unit 1998-2014

The MRC Prion Unit at UCL is extremely sad to report that Tony Clarke, known to us all as “Clarke”, who led the structural biology programme at Unit from its inception in 1998 until his retirement in 2014, passed away on 10th July 2016.

His contributions to prion research much preceded the foundation of the Unit. He first approached John Collinge following a seminar at the Biochemistry Department in Bristol in 1991 and, following intense scientific discussions at the pub afterwards, a long term collaboration was established to study the structural biology of prions. When the MRC Prion Unit was formed in 1998, Tony took up a half-time position at the Unit, not only leading its structural biology programme but contributing with characteristic intellectual generosity, brilliance and willingness to challenge any dogma, to all the research groups at the Unit and in the University Department for many years.

Clarke was a brilliant scientist and a unique personality who inspired and stimulated an entire generation of scientists whom he supervised and worked with. He utterly resisted the increasing pressures for journal impact factors anything that constituted administration but was always driven by inherent curiosity, enthusiasm and fun. He was impossible to ignore, and once met, never forgotten.

While a brilliant mathematician, he preferred critical experiments that gave an incisive result without the need for statistical analysis. His experiments were always carefully designed and interpreted in the simplest way possible consistent with the results. Unerringly generous with his time and knowledge, he was a great teacher, and always willing to help, especially if you had quantitative data to analyse. He treated everybody equally, from undergraduates to eminent professors, listening to all ideas, and berating bad ones sometimes in a spectacularly undiplomatic fashion! Tony was gregarious in the extreme and created a social cohesion between all ranks with a unique ability to engage young scientists in informal discussions.

He was a pioneer of the use of site-directed mutagenesis in protein folding and catalysis, internationally preeminent in kinetics, and had a comprehensive grasp of protein folding, structure and chemistry that made him perfect for the study of the structural biology of prions. His peculiar blend of irreverence and integrity, humility and hubris, jester and genius endeared him to many with a depth that leaves us knowing the world will never be quite the same again. Clarke is irreplaceable and will be greatly missed by us all at the Prion Unit as well as by his many friends and colleagues worldwide. Clarke is survived by his two daughters, Charlotte and Louise, and the Unit expresses its deep condolences to his partner and his family.