David Phillips, an honorary Fellow of the College, was one of the group of eminent British scientists, including Dorothy Hodgkin [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.217], Francis Crick, Sir John Kendrew and Max Perutz, who in the 1950s and 1960s laid the foundations of modern molecular biology. He made many contributions to the development of the discipline, but his greatest achievement was the determination of the first ever three-dimensional structure of an enzyme, lysozyme, and the elucidation of its catalytic mechanism. Later he became a senior science adviser to the government. His distinction in both roles was marked by many honours, including a knighthood and a life peerage.
David Phillips was born in Ellesmere, Shropshire, where his father was a master tailor. His family had no previous connection in medicine or science, but two cousins practised abroad. His initial education, interrupted by the Second World War, in which he served as a sub-lieutenant in the RNVR, was at University College, Cardiff. Here he gained two BSc degrees, in electrical engineering and in physics, and a PhD in X-ray crystallography. He then took post-doctoral research positions with the National Research Council of Canada, in Ottawa, between 1951 and 1955.
On his return to England he joined the Royal Institution in London, under the directorship of the Nobel laureate Sir Lawrence Bragg, to work on the then entirely new science of protein crystallography. There he became a member of Kendrew’s team, otherwise based in Cambridge, which in 1958 successfully completed the first ever three-dimensional structure of a protein molecule, myoglobin, at atomic resolution. The importance of this work was recognized by a Nobel prize for Kendrew.
Following this achievement, David Phillips assembled his own research group at the Royal Institution to work on crystals of the enzyme lysozyme, which had first been isolated by Sir Alexander Fleming [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.132], subsequent to his discovery of penicillin. By 1964 not only had the three-dimensional structure of the first enzyme been fully described in atomic detail, but the way in which it hydrolysed the polysaccharides in bacterial cell walls had also been revealed. It is not unrealistic to claim that at one stroke this work ‘solved’ the problem of enzyme activity and laid the foundation for nearly all subsequent enzyme studies. It also directly opened the way to the development of the increasing number of modern drugs that operate by controlling or inhibiting various enzyme molecules.
After the success with lysozyme, David Phillips moved to Oxford University in 1966 to set up the Laboratory of Molecular Biophysics and become its first professor. Realising the value of a multidisciplinary approach to structural biology, his was the main driving force behind the establishment of the Oxford Enzyme Group, bringing together senior scientists from different departments who were interested in enzymes. This was the forerunner of the Oxford Centre for Molecular Sciences. In Oxford he continued to work on the structure of protein molecules, including the enzymes of glycolysis, the b-lactamases that confer penicillin resistance on bacteria, and the immunoglobulins. A further achievement in Oxford was the realization that it was possible to use X-ray crystallography to define the dynamic properties of protein molecules. This initiated the study of macromolecular dynamics which subsequently burgeoned into a major field of its own, and is currently providing insights into the causes of the modern curse of amyloid disease.
David Philips married his wife Diana (née Hutchinson) in 1960 and they had one daughter. His main interests outside his professional life were in history, literature and particularly the theatre and in later life he was devoted to his two grandchildren.
David was an essentially modest man, but one of fierce intelligence and integrity who greatly disliked humbug and pomposity. It is no surprise that as a government adviser he found Margaret Thatcher’s demand for intellectual rigour in the formulation of policy congenial, even though he was not a political soulmate.
Elected a fellow of the Royal Society, David Phillips was awarded its gold medal in 1975 and subsequently became a vice-president and then biological secretary. In 1979 he was knighted for his services to science. In 1983 he became chairman of the advisory board to the Research Councils. Later he became the science adviser at the department of education. There he had a second distinguished career in the development of national science policy. In 1994 he was made a life peer, taking the title of Baron Phillips of Elsemere. Typically, although suffering ill-health, he played an active role in the House of Lords and acted as chairman of its select committee on science and technology until he was too ill to do so. David Phillips fought a long and courageous battle against cancer, dying shortly after completing a history of the lysozyme project.
[The Times 26 Feb 1999; The Independent 26 Feb 1999; The Guardian 1 Mar 1999; The Daily Telegraph 6 Mar 1999]