Friday, 10 December 2010

Kenneth Burton, FRS

Kenneth Burton, FRS — a tribute

(Born: 1926; FRS: 1974; Died: 22nd  Nov 2010)

It will be well known that Professor Kenneth Burton was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1974 (incidentally, the same year as Stephen Hawking); a distinction that marked him as lying in the top 1,200  scientists in Britain, at that time. I see it as my first objective to explain, in non-technical terms, what Kenneth's achievements amounted to that were so valued by his peers, and what mental qualities and circumstances allowed Ken to make those contributions.  I shall then refer briefly to his years as Professor of Biochemistry at Newcastle, and end by quoting a short paragraph from Professor George Petersen, Kenneth's second research student and a lifelong friend.

The American golfer, Arnold Palmer, famously remarked that the more he practiced the luckier he became. In this sense there is an element of luck in science as well as in sport. Many scientists have one stroke of luck; geniuses like Sir Hans Krebs strike lucky over and over throughout their lives. Kenneth Burton had three occasions when he struck lucky.

The best known of these was his citation classic of 1956 in which he described a sensitive and reproducible assay of DNA which proved so popular that it is known as "the Burton Method". This paper has been cited by other scientists 17,000 times, and is still being cited 50 years later; that is some 1000 times more often quoted than the average scientific paper. His 'stroke of genius' on that occasion was to leave the half-completed assay tubes on the bench overnight instead of staying late and finishing the experiment properly. Ken Burton observed that the colours developed by themselves overnight much better than by the traditional protocol. He next observed that the colours that developed with Chicago acetic acid did not develop in Oxford. Well, that was the serendipitous part; the rest of the achievement was having the curiosity and the ready mind to interpret and exploit the observations; for example, by adding acetaldehyde that presumably contaminated the Chicago acetic acid. [Burton K. (1956) Biochem. J. 62, 315 - 20; "A study of the conditions and mechanism of the dipehnylamine reaction for the colorimetric estimation of deoxyribonucleic acid."]

Much more important, scientifically speaking, was Ken's paper of the previous year in which he showed that viral DNA synthesis (in bacteria) required viral proteins to be synthesised first. This is a very fundamental point in understanding viruses, and of course anti-viral medicines. Virus reproduction requires viral proteins.[Burton, K. (1955)  Biochem. J. 61, 473–483; Relation between the synthesis of deoxyribonucleic acid and the synthesis of protein in the multiplication of bacteriophage T2.]

It is argueable, however, that Ken Burton's greatest achievement was his publication of the following year, i.e. of 1957. He wrote an appendix to a massive paper by Krebs and Kornberg, in which he calculated and listed the free-energies of formation of all the compounds of energy metabolism, from the sugar we eat to the CO2 we breath out, and everything in between. Things falls downwards, in biochemistry as in every other field. Ken's tabulation allows us to see which direction is downwards (in this metaphor.) It allows us to understand why thing happen, everything, from the contraction of muscle to the synthesis of protein. Countless students of biochemistry learn and quote the values from that table and never realize they are quoting Ken Burton. Were it possible to count citations in this case I think it would run to millions.[Krebs HA, Kornberg HL, Burton K (1957) Ergebnisse der Physiologie; 49: 212-298; "A survey of the energy transformations in living matter"]

Some of this may be news to Ken's friends, for I never heard Ken talking proudly about his successes. He was a  singularly un-boastful man. Most of us are motivated, at least in part, by self-love, prestige, and scoring over ones contemporaries. This can get so bad, in a mediocre department, that one person's success is generally bemoaned, as implying failure for the rest. Ken rose above that. His objectives were more remote, more absolute; he was motivated, I think, less by the glory of doing science, than simply by the fun of it. Characteristically he liked to tell, not of his fame, but the story of a failure, or of bad luck; of how he missed identifying the role of co-enzyme A in citric acid synthesis, thus allowing Fritz Lipmann to announce that discovery a year or two later and share the 1953 Nobel prize with Hans Krebs. Ken's mistake (he said), on that occasion, was too much veneration for the opinions of colleagues; a fault I believe he subsequently corrected![Novelli G. D., Lipmann F. (1950) J. Biol. Chem. 182:213–228.]

Ken's were significant achievements! But why did they happen to Ken Burton? Well, he was very sharp; he was well grounded in chemistry, physics and maths (his undergraduate subjects); he had a roving curiosity, a sense of enjoyment in science, and persistence. He studied for his PhD under a master of benchwork biochemistry in Malcolm Dixon; a legendary enzymologist, an intensely shy man, but a very considerable pianist . It was said of Malcolm Dixon that he was as happy fixing a gas boiler as doing biochemistry. When Kenneth moved to Sheffield in 1949 he came under the mantle of one of the worlds great scientists; Hans Krebs was hard-working, methodical but imaginative. He was remarkable amongst scientific bosses in not letting his name get onto the papers of colleagues merely because he was their boss. Krebs encouraged Ken's independence of mind. Kenneth was remarkable too, in a similar way, in that a high proportion of his papers were single author papers. He did his own thinking and his own experiments. Medawar pointed out that to achieve a big answer you have to tackle a big problem; Krebs gave Ken Burton access to the big question of Free Energies.

Following those 3 classic papers of the mid fifties Ken Burton followed two other major projects, with equal tenacity and skill, but to less acclaim. He and his students followed up the diphenylamine reaction for several years, developing methods for cleaving the long threads of intact DNA in the hope of finding a way of determining the sequence of bases and thus "reading" the genes. In this they initially had some success. Last year, in her Nobel acceptance speech, Elizabeth Blackburn admitted using Ken Burton's depurination reaction in her 1975 investigations of "satellite DNA". But much more powerful methods of sequencing were developed by others and "Burton's depurination method" has been forgotten.

[Burton K. (1965) Essays Biochem. 1, 57-89. Sequence determination in nucleic acids.].

In 1966  Ken Burton became the first professor of Biochemistry at Newcastle upon Tyne. Designing the course and selecting staff took over his time and energies, but did not completely prevent active research, nor indeed bench work. Ken soon started an investigation into the mechanism by which adenine is actively taken up by bacteria, a project he pursued almost single-handedly till retirement. It was not fashionable. ('Bacteria take up everything; so what?') The trend in science was towards progressively bigger research groups getting more and more of the money. With great ingenuity and a "shoestring", Ken eventually brought the subject to a satisfactory conclusion with his last scientific paper in 1994, identifying a gene and proposing a proton-linked uptake and intense product inhibition.  

[Burton K. (1994) Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B; 255:153-7; Adenine transport in Escherichia coli.]

I have tried to show Kenneth Burton the scientist; but that is only one aspect of the whole man. I understood that Ken had enjoyed building the department from scratch but had found the deeply entrenched Medical Faculty aloof, if not actually hostile. Successful integration of Biochemistry into the Mecidal School only came in 1985 when Ken was Dean of Science. "Prof Burton" was universally regarded as completely fair, singularly unaffected by egotism, unusually given (for a head of Department) to working at the bench, and an enthusiastic walker. Malcolm Page, who did his PhD with Ken and subsequently worked with me writes: "Having now supervised a few students myself, I realize what a special quality [Ken] had and I have endeavoured to give my students the same freedom". Thus we see the baton passed on.

George Petersen, one of Kenneth Burton's first research students and a lifelong friend has written a charming and well balanced personal tribute from which I shall quote a short paragraph. It shows how well George knew Kenneth. Professor Petersen writes:

"Kenneth Burton had an endearingly impish sense of humour and many little human quirks.  In conversation, he had a disconcerting way of drifting off while speaking and going into some sort of trance.  Whether he actually lost consciousness, I don't know. But, after a short interval of gazing into space, he would return to continue the conversation as though nothing had happened.  And it has to be said that he was not the world's most lucid lecturer.  Basil Smith, another DPhil student in Ken's laboratory, once said, "Ken could mystify for England".  Perhaps this was part of the same phenomenon.  Ken told us once that, after a lecture, he could not recall much of what he had said and could only conclude that he had fallen asleep during his own lecture." 

I concur, but would not have dared say it.

Ian West, 12 Longhirst, 
MORPETH, NE61 3LT
++++++++++++   OOOOOOOO  ++++++++++++

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