Lives of the fellows

Frederick Sydney, Baron Dainton of Hallam Moors Dainton

b.11 November 1914 d.5 December 1997
Bt(1986) Kt( 1971) MA BSc Oxon PhD ScD Cantab Hon ScD Lódz(1966) Hon ScD Dublin(1968)Hon DSc Bath Univ of Technology(1970)Hon DSc Loughborough (1970) Hon DSc Heriot-Watt(1970) Hon DSc Warwick(1970) Hon LLD Nottingham (1970) Hon DSc Strathclyde(1971) Hon DSc Exeter(1971) Hon DSc Queen’s University Belfast(1971) Hon DSc Manch(1972) Hon DSc East Anglia(1972) Hon LLD Aberd(1972) Hon DSc Leeds(1973) Hon DSc McMaster(1975) Hon DSc Uppsala(1977) Hon DSc Liverp(1979) Hon DSc Salford(1979) Hon FRCP(1979) Hon LLD Sheffield(1979) Hon LLD Cantab(1979) Hon DSc Ulster(1980) Hon DSc Kent(1981) Hon FRSC(1983) Hon LLD Lond(1984) Hon FRCR(1984) Hon FLA(1986) Hon DCL Oxon(1988) Hon LLD Lancaster(1989) Hon Dlitt CNAA(1991) Hon DSc Reading(1996)

Frederick Sydney Dainton, ‘Fred’ to all his friends, was the ninth child of a humble but stimulating family. His father, a master stone mason with great skill despite little education, helped to fashion his life. He insisted on Fred bringing home books from the library and reading them to him; the discourse was interrupted at intervals by his father analysing what had been read. Fred had a deep admiration for his father and one of the great events of his life was the rediscovery of his father’s tool box, used while he was working on Sheffield University, which was donated to the University when he was its chancellor, a post which he held with pride and devotion from 1978 until his death.

Fred’s intellectual brilliance was recognised early; he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Central Secondary School in Sheffield and an exhibition to St John’s College, Oxford. With the help of sympathetic tutors he picked up other prizes and scholarships including one from the Goldsmiths’ Company which he repaid in later life by his strong support of the Company, of which he was prime warden from 1982 to 1983. Despite this, life was a struggle to make ends meet; at vacation time he borrowed a bicycle to pedal the 143 miles home to Sheffield. However under stern and effective tutoring by H W ‘Tommy’ Thompson he graduated with first class honours in chemistry in 1937.

He moved to Cambridge to study chemical reactions under R G W Norrish and had just been appointed to a teaching post when the Second World War broke out. He was soon burdened with heavy teaching duties and extra-mural research for the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Supply. Much of this work was later published in seventeen reports. It brought to his attention the dangers as well as the benefits of nuclear energy. He strove to persuade the government that the dangers should be taken seriously but later strongly opposed Luddite calls to scrap all nuclear power stations. The Second World War brought him one great benefit; he was in charge of the fire-watching duty rota and was thus able to ensure that he was joined on his shifts by a zoological research student, Barbara Wright, who in 1942 became Mrs Dainton. It was one of the great marriages; in the next 55 years innumerable students, colleagues, friends and visitors enjoyed their hospitality and admired the way they complemented one another. Barbara became a distinguished zoologist and fellow of St Hilda's College, Oxford.

In 1946 Fred was invited to visit Chalk River Laboratories in Canada for three months and this brief experience focused his research on to radiation chemistry. In 1950 he was invited to the chair of chemistry in Leeds and embarked on the most productive period of his scientific career, gaining insight into the movement of atoms or electrons within molecules under the influence of light, heat and ionising radiation. This knowledge was important to industry, for example in the production of plastics, and in biology in understanding the good and ill effects of nuclear radiation in the treatment of human disease. This work led to his election as FRS in 1957 and the award of the Davy medal in 1969 and it contributed to many of the 297 major original articles which he published in his career. It was at Leeds, too, that he first displayed his prowess as a fund-raiser, to the benefit of the department of chemistry and the high energy radiation research laboratory at Cookridge Hospital of which he became director and continued to direct for seven years after he left Leeds. He chaired the Association for Radiation Research from 1964 to 1966 and the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) from 1973 to 1985. He made the NRPB an independent body with authority and continued to steer UK policy on a steady course based on the latest research and scientific evidence. These were the years when leaks from nuclear plants were quietly hushed up and tinpot local authorities erected notices saying ‘This is a nuclear free zone’; we needed a steady hand on the tiller.

Another of Lord Daintons contributions to medicine was his concern for undergraduate medical education. From his early days at Cambridge he was convinced of the need to reform the medical curriculum by breaking down the rigid division between pre-clinical and clinical studies. Having failed to convince his colleagues at Leeds, he accepted an invitation to become vice-chancellor of Nottingham University when it was planning its new medical school. His stay at Nottingham (from 1965 to 1970) was cut short by an invitation to the Lee chair of chemistry in Oxford but he left his mark on what was to become one of the most innovative new medial curricula. From 1973 to 1978 Fred was chairman of the University Grants Committee (UGC) at a time of upheaval sparked by the oil crisis. This precipitated hyperinflation peaking at 27% and stern measures to reduce public spending, including a total ban on University building, against which he argued successfully at least in respect of halls of residence. It says much for his energy and diplomacy that no university or medical school went bankrupt and some stability was restored to university funding.

The lessons of this period on how to preserve the best were put to good effect in a later crisis in university finance following the imposition of overseas student fees, which fell heavily on the postgraduate medical schools, and cuts in university grants in the early 1980s. By then Fred was chairman of council of the Royal Postgraduate Medical School (RPMS) which faced potentially lethal cuts. He found at RPMS a devotion to academic excellence which was dear to his heart and was determined to save it. A Dainton committee was set up which reviewed every member of staff for research, teaching, clinical and other productivity and made the cuts where they would least hurt the institution. It was tough but transparently fair and it persuaded the University of London and the UGC that RPMS was worth preserving. As chairman and later president of the School he remained a staunch supporter until his death, and our most effective fund raiser. His help to me as dean in those turbulent years was unstinting; I became a devoted disciple.

Two of his other activities had important implications for medicine. In 1967 Fred was asked to chair a committee to review the large libraries supported by public funds and advise on their future. His committee recommended a British National Library and proposed that it be built opposite the British Museum. The eventual choice of the St Pancras site did not blunt his enthusiasm for the project and from 1978 to 1985 he chaired the British Library Board. In the 1980s he had a tough battle persuading a government which was opposed to public spending and appalled at the rising costs of the project to keep it alive. I recall several conversations about his exchanges with Margaret Thatcher whom he had once taught. Presumably she was not aware that he had described her in student days as "a hardworking second rater" since he always came away with the money.

Early in his fourteen years as member and later chairman of the Council for Scientific Policy (1969 to1972) he chaired a subcommittee looking into the ‘swing away from science’ in schools and recommended maintaining broad education right up to university entrance with changed criteria for university entrance. The proposal has been revived periodically since but always shelved and the swing away from science continues. Perhaps it will one day enjoy a renaissance like the Black report on inequalities in health.

As chairman of the Advisory Board of the Research Councils from 1970 to 1973, Fred produced a report for Margaret Thatcher, then Secretary of State for Education, that brought closer together the five Research Councils under their advisory board. He chaired the Arthritis and Rheumatism Council from 1988 to his death.

Honours were heaped upon him; over thirty honorary degrees and fellowships, including the honorary FRCP. They were a tribute both to his international standing and to the many distinguished pupils who invited him to continue giving public lectures into his eighties, assured that they would be well prepared, well delivered and stimulating. He was knighted in 1971 and raised to the peerage in 1986. He enjoyed his years in the Upper House (known to Barbara as ‘Fred’s play group’) and put them to good use in defence of science in the Select Committee on Science and Technology and as chairman of the House Library and Computing Committee.

Fred was famous for his large stock of anecdotes, many of them about Yorkshiremen. I close with his favourite - the day he was walking in the Yorkshire countryside when he hailed a local with ‘Grand day’ and received the reply ‘Aye. Nowt wrong wi’ day, its boogers you meet’.

David Kerr

[The Daily Telegraph, 10 Dec 1997; The Guardian, 8 Dec 1997; The Times, 8 Dec 1997; The Independent, 8 Dec 1997]

(Volume X, page 91)

<< Back to List