Chance » Reflections » Poole

No one quite like him

Robert K Poole / University of Sheffield, UK

14 June 2011

Brit biking at his 90th birthday celebration in 2003.

Memorial Corner in BC's darkroom, 1970s

Robert Poole, experimentee

Britton Chance (center) with Jane Vanderkooi (left) and Denis Rosseau (right) at BC's 90th birthday celebration.

Robert Poole, Martin Wikstrom, and Marilyn Gunner at BC's 90th birthday celebration at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Brit's study at his home on Pine Street

When I first visited Brit’s lab in March 1973 as a ‘green’ PhD student, I had never met anybody like Britton Chance. Now, 38 years later as a University Professor who has travelled the world, I have still not encountered anybody quite like him or who has changed the course of my career so profoundly.

I was sent to work with Brit by David Lloyd, my PhD mentor at University College Cardiff, who had made the pilgrimage himself. The plan was to obtain high resolution 77K spectra of fission yeast, do stopped-flow experiments on the uncharacterised oxidase and, if all went well, separate yeast populations into size (age) classes by zonal centrifugation in sufficient quantities for cytochrome quantitation. Of course the spectroscopy was easy in Brit’s amazing darkroom, an Aladdin’s cave really: David Wilson and Maria Erecinska tutored me in the split-beam machine, but it was Brit himself who did the kinetics with me on Saturdays. The extraordinary thing was not that everything worked, but that everybody was so generous with their time, advice, and facilities. For growing microbes, Tomoko Ohnishi generously lent me her fermenter and John Williamson’s lab on the 6th floor supplied access to their zonal rotor for fractionating yeast populations by size. I wanted for nothing: with Lil’s cash honorarium in my shoes (to avoid theft between the JF and International House on 37th and Chestnut) I was set up for several weeks of intense effort.

Only the first night after my arrival in Philadelphia was uncomfortable; the immigration officials weren’t impressed by a long-haired youth with no return air ticket, little cash and the claim that Dr Chance was going to look after everything. By the time I was released, it was late at night, the phone number I’d be given for Tom at the JF was no longer being answered and so I slept on an airport bench. Brit was glad to see me, bedraggled and tired, but anxious to start work the following morning. We immediately had a meeting to discuss the programme. I found it remarkable that such a distinguished scientist should set time aside for discussions with a mere PhD student, but I soon realised that several others were having meetings with Brit too, all simultaneously - some in person, some on the phone.

I returned to the JF many times to work on my microbial systems, particularly the oxidases of Escherichia coli. Brit’s ingenious low-temperature ‘triple trapping’ photolysis protocol generated many papers on the kinetics of ligand binding, identification of early reaction intermediates and cytochrome oxidation, using both the dual-wavelength scanning spectrophotometer and the four-filter turbine machine. I recall that the former had enormous Bausch and Lomb monochromators which, Alan Waring advised me, required an elastic band within of exactly the right tension to ensure the monochromator wound back promptly and fully after a scan. So indispensable did these machines become for my work in King’s College London and then Sheffield, that I later bought two of the scanners (without elastic bands) and a four-filter turbine machine too.

Later visits, one of which was shared with David Lloyd, saw many, many more hours in the darkroom on the flying spot fluorimeter to measure redox oscillation in dilute cultures of yeast in Petri dishes. All these activities resulted in lots of good papers. Latterly, even though I saw Brit less often, Brit was very keen to hear of our interest in microbial haemoglobins. In the early 1970s, Brit, with the Oshinos, had extensively characterised the haemoglobin of yeast (first described by Keilin in the ‘50s) but they did not understand its function. He was delighted to learn that we had shown that expression of the homologous E. coli flavohaemoglobin is dramatically enhanced by the presence of NO and that its function is oxygen-dependent NO detoxification.

Although I never saw Brit ask or direct the Shop staff to help me, they always did promptly, efficiently and with good humour; I am sure that any friend of Brit’s was a friend of John Sorge, Bill Pennie, Norm Graham and Allen Bonner too. Thank you, gentlemen. Here I think is part of Brit’s magic: his infectious enthusiasm and love of the problem drew others in to share the adventure gladly.

Brit’s generosity, humanity, industry, eccentricity and brilliance have become so legendary that he has inspired not only my generation but will surely inspire our students and their students in their endeavours. I think Brit would want that.

– Robert Poole