Philip Joseph Syrett 1925–2014


Phil Syrett, who died in Swansea after a short illness on 13 May 2014, was one of the outstanding plant physiologists of his generation. His pioneering research into the nitrogen metabolism of microalgae became part of the bedrock of knowledge for decades afterwards.


Born into a working-class family in Shepherd’s Bush, London, on 17 April 1925, he won a scholarship to Latymer Upper School, among the best grammar schools in the country. His favourite subject was initially chemistry, a passion that began after receiving a chemistry set one Christmas. It was also at Latymer that he developed a lifelong love of literature after reading a novel by Jane Austen.


His interest in Botany developed after being introduced to microscopy by a friendly neighbour and was further increased by reading a book on plant physiology by Meirion Thomas, Professor of Botany at Newcastle University; a figure who was later to have an important influence on his career. In an unpublished memoir Phil records: I came to know him rather well later; he was the external examiner when I took my last examination in botany in Cambridge and we spent the oral examination discussing the novels of Jane Austen. He was a referee when I was up for a Readership in London University, an examiner for my DSc degree and a member of the appointment committee which offered me the Chair of Botany at Swansea.


In 1943 he won a place at Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, to study Natural Sciences and graduated with a first class honours degree in botany in 1946. At that time, Professor W.H. Pearsall, head of the Department of Botany at University College London, was seeking to recruit outstanding young graduates. Phil was among three selected and began his career at UCL as an Assistant Lecturer.


It was at UCL that he began seminal research on the nitrogen and carbon metabolism of the green alga Chlorella, but his interests also extended to other microoganisms, particularly Thiobacillus. Many of his research students went on to make their own mark in the field. In recognition of the quality of his published work he was awarded a DSc in 1965.


In 1967 he was appointed to the Chair of Botany at University College Swansea and built up a thriving postgraduate research group, which gained international recognition. The emphasis moved from the nitrogen metabolism of ‘green specks’ to marine phytoplankton, especially mechanisms of nitrogen uptake. In 1970 he began a 28-year association with the New Phytologist Trust. He was an Editor of New Phytologist from 1970 until 1990; he was an advisor to the Trust from 1990 until 1998 and also served as its Treasurer.


It is as an outstanding and inspirational lecturer and research supervisor that his students will remember him. His lectures were always lucid and focused, often reinforced with hand-outs. He once remarked to one of his students who became a lecturer at Swansea: Remember, my boy, keep it simple, people will only remember three or four things you’ve said! The experiments in his practical classes were always meticulously designed; the most interesting often involved the use of radioisotopes and would probably alarm latter-day health and safety zealots.


A student from UCL days recalls: Tutorials were something of an ordeal, because when I said something stupid, Phil would sit quietly fiddling with his propelling pencil waiting for me to admit that I didn’t understand. He would then explain in the most wonderfully lucid way. The understanding that I gained from his lectures and tutorials remained with me for a long time. He taught me that nothing should be assumed and everything should be questioned. These were good guiding principles for a career as a research scientist.


As a research supervisor he kept a light hand on the tiller, allowing his protégés to develop their own ideas but he was always there when needed to provide advice, inspiration and, if necessary, an extra push. He was also a kind man and would go out of his way to help students with personal problems. Many of his students at UCL and Swansea assimilated some of the Syrett magic and they carried it with them into their future research and teaching.


During his long retirement he indulged his various passions: watching cricket, music, especially Wagnerian operas played at loud volume, reading, and holidaying in his beloved Lake District and in France.


Phil was devoted to his family; he loved them greatly and was greatly loved by them. When his wife, Gene, whom he met while at Cambridge, passed away in 1997 he became the lynchpin of the family and organized many memorable gatherings. He leaves three daughters, eight grandchildren and two great-granddaughters.


John Leftley – who acknowledges much help from Phil’s daughter, Pip, her husband, Keith, and from Charles Hipkin.


09 September 2015