Real Lives: Scientist was expert in antibiotics

Professor Richard Ambler was an 'outstanding' scientist. Picture: contributed
Professor Richard Ambler was an 'outstanding' scientist. Picture: contributed
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A WORLD-RENOWNED antibiotics expert who carried out much of his work in the Capital has died at the age of 80.

Professor Richard Ambler, a member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation, was hailed as an outstanding scientist by friends and relatives, who also praised his wit, common sense and dedication to those he knew.

Born in Bexley Heath in May 1933, Richard moved with his family to Poona in India, where his father, Dr Henry Ambler, worked in explosives research.

But he returned to the UK to attend boarding school, where his skills in the sciences soon became apparent. In 1954 he won a place at Pembroke College, Cambridge University, to study natural sciences and remained there to complete a PhD.

Developing what would become an internationally-respected knowledge of bacteria, Prof Ambler was accepted to the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, also in Cambridge, where he met his first wife, Pat.

His connection with the Capital began in 1965, when he was asked to join the department of molecular biology at Edinburgh University in recognition of his expertise in protein chemistry. With his reputation rising fast, Prof Ambler was elected a member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation in 1985 and given a personal chair in 1987.

In 1984, he was appointed head of the department and played a key role in the reorganisation of biology within the faculty of science and engineering, which led to the creation of the division of biological sciences and the institute of cell and molecular biology. Prof Ambler was renowned for his research into the evolution of bacteria and pioneered the development of protein sequencing techniques which enabled dramatic new insights and understanding.

His work suggested that organisms evolved both by mutation and selection of their genomes, and by acquiring genes which had developed in separate organisms. This information has become crucial in a world where bacteria often build resistance to antibiotics.

As well as scientific success, Prof Ambler enjoyed a rich family life – he had two daughters with his first wife, Pat, before they broke up in 1990, and he went on to marry Sue Hewlett.

He also had a wide range of non-scientific interests, particularly archaeology and was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Friends said he could always be relied upon to provide an accurate answer, no matter how obscure the question.

He is survived by daughters and grandchildren – Anne and her children, Jane and Richard; Jane, her husband Dave, and their children Katy and Sarah; Juliet and Alan, and daughters Elysia and Poppy; Heidi and her daughter Aimee; Nicola and David, and Gemma and her fiancé, Lloyd.