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A few reflections on Brit

David Trentham, FRS

June 2011

My earliest exposure to Brit and his science came from my entry into transient kinetics and enzymology at Bristol under the watchful eye of Freddie Gutfreund. I was soon to read the classical Chance paper (The kinetics of the enzyme-substrate compound of peroxidase J. Biol. Chem. 151:553-575, 1943) that was to set the pattern for so much of the thinking in transient kinetics of enzyme systems and the characterization of intermediates that now is taken for granted. We are all so familiar with the profound inspiration to biology that has come from instrumentation as exemplified by the Johnson Foundation workshops. Indeed the precursor Chance papers leading up to the peroxidase one are exemplars of his instrument development. But here is a paper that shows a side of Brit that illustrates his deep commitment to a strong theoretical foundation for experimental work and understanding basic tenets of enzymology.

My seven years at Penn were entirely dependent on the generosity of Brit and his brother Henry through their endowment of the Edwin M. Chance chair in memory of their father. Those years were my first opportunity to set up the instrumentation for my laboratory. Of course the proximity of the Johnson Foundation workshop was absolutely indispensable for this, not only for the hardware produced, but also for the guiding light of Brit and his team. An example of this was the special advice that Brit was able to bring to any problem. My research required the use of pulsed lasers capable of operating in the near-UV. Once Brit had grasped the problem which I had mulled over with others, he uniquely suggested I go and talk to Jim McCray at Drexel University. The many weeks spent with Jim building and struggling with dye and solid state lasers laid the foundation for years of in situ kinetic studies in muscle.

Much will I am sure be said and written of Brit’s contribution to guiding the young into biophysics and its application to medicine, and to his encouragement of minorities. Penn made a great effort in its annual selection of medical students to let them know of its commitment to basic research and the opportunities Penn offered. On Saturday meetings throughout the Fall I would talk informally to the students in their gaps between formal interviews. By noon I would gather half-a-dozen or so enthusiasts and set off to show them the Johnson Foundation and hopefully to meeting Brit. Invariably he was there, welcoming them, showing an interest in their aspirations and then leading them into the excitement of what he happened to be experimenting on at the time. A major part of Brit’s legacy to Penn surely lies in his inspiration of the young.

– David Trentham, June 2011