Richard Burnard Rodnight, 1921–2012



Richard Rodnight.

Wellearth Studios

This brief summary of the scientific life of Richard Rodnight relies heavily on an excellent article that he wrote in 2005, called ‘An Unconventional Journey to Neuroscience (Rodnight 2005)’, in which he elaborates on many of the periods of his life that are discussed here. It is essential reading because it tells so much about what influenced Richard's life and how his approach to science developed. Behind the words, there is also a clear indication of his scientific honesty, personal integrity and love for his colleagues and students.

Richard Rodnight was born in London on 4th March 1921. He went to Watford Grammar School from the age of 8 until he reached the school-leaving age of 16. He then worked as a medical laboratory technician in a number of hospital pathology laboratories throughout the war, undertaking bacteriology, haematology and, later on, clinical biochemistry analyses. During this period, he studied part-time for his Intermediate B.Sc. In social conversations, Richard made frequent reference to this period of his life as being both formative and very important to his future career as a researcher. He met many people who made a lasting impression on him and it seems to me that he became an independent thinker who was confident in his own abilities. After the war, Richard continued to work at hospital laboratories and to study on a part time basis for his B.Sc. General, which he completed in 1949.

One of Richard's post-war jobs was with Henry McIlwain, as a research technician at the Maudsley Hospital Medical School. He published his first article as a result of this work (McIlwain and Rodnight 1949). This experience convinced him to do a PhD and become an academic. However, he needed to have an Honours degree first. Richard undertook a second undergraduate degree titled Special Studies in Physiology, which he did on a part time basis completing it in 1955. Between 1951 and 1956, Richard worked as a Research Assistant on research grants at the Institute of Psychiatry with Henry McIlwain. Richard was then offered a lectureship at the Institute in 1957, became tenured in 1958 and in 1959, at the age of 38, he completed his PhD. He was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1960 and to Reader in 1967. Richard served as the Sub Dean of the Institute from 1970–1976. In 1974, Richard was awarded a D.Sc. and in 1976, a personal Chair. He then served as Chairman of the Academic Board from 1977–1979 and set in train the work to establish a trust for the Institute, which was launched in 1982 and has subsequently become incredibly successful. When Henry McIlwain retired in 1980, Richard became the Head of the Department of Biochemistry at the Institute of Psychiatry where he remained until he retired in 1986 at the age of 65. In his review (Rodnight 2005), Richard dedicated the story of his life in science to the memory of his mentor Henry McIlwain.

Richard published 89 articles and reviews from his time at the Institute of Psychiatry. The initial focus of his research was on the composition of body fluids from mentally ill patients, including those with abnormalities in indoles and those with inborn errors in metabolism. The former project eventually focused on dimethyltryptamine and was supported by PhD students Michael Oon and Michael Boarder; these studies were reviewed by Richard in 1983 (Rodnight 1983). However, the major focus of Richard's research was on protein phosphorylation in the brain. It began from an observation of P J Heald, who found that if he labelled brain slices with [32P]phosphate and then applied an electrical stimulus, the specific radioactivity of the trichloroacetic acid-insoluble protein was increased by 60% within 2 s (Heald 1957). Richard took over this project when Heald suddenly left the Institute to move into industry. The initial focus of Richard's research was on where the protein phosphate was being incorporated. Anthony Trevor, a PhD student, found that most of the phosphate was in the crude microsomal fraction (Trevor and Rodnight, 1965). Malcolm Weller, a PhD student, then showed in a series of articles, including one in Nature (Weller and Rodnight, 1970), that a cyclic AMP-stimulated protein kinase was likely to be involved. Subsequent work by PhD students Michael Williams and Martin Reddington (Reddington et al. 1973) found that incubation of brain slices with the biogenic amines noradrenaline, serotonin and histamine all increased protein phosphorylation. The effects of noradrenaline were not additive with the effects of electrical pulses and were blocked by beta-adrenergic receptor antagonists (Williams and Rodnight, 1974). These data suggested that electrical pulses released noradrenaline from nerve terminals, which increased cyclic AMP via activation of beta-receptors leading to PKA activation and phosphorylation of neuronal proteins. At this time, Richard's laboratory was leading the world in this field of research and there was a constant stream of international visitors to the Institute.

The next major task was to identify the phosphoproteins involved and to determine their function. Very early on, Richard believed that there was likely to be only one or a few proteins involved, once setting a PhD student the task of finding ‘the phosphoprotein in the brain’. However, the advent of polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (PAGE) quickly showed that there were in fact many proteins involved. I first met Richard when I joined him for 2 years as a postdoctoral fellow in 1975. We used PAGE to characterize some of these phosphoproteins (Dunkley et al. 1977). A postdoc, Helen Holmes, investigated the ontogeny of some of these phosphoproteins and subsequent PhD students, Chris Perret and Ayse Dosemeci, used 2-D PAGE to further investigate the subcellular and the regional distribution of the proteins in the brain. However, it was left to many others researchers across the world to properly identify and characterize the function of the various neuronal proteins whose phosphorylation was stimulated by electrical pulses.

By most standards, Richard had completed a full scientific life by the age of 65 and he could have chosen to retire with a great sense of accomplishment. However, instead he chose to accept a position in 1987 as a Visiting Professor in the Biochemistry Department in Porto Alegre in Brazil. This required him to move to a foreign country that he had only visited a few times, to learn Portuguese, to establish a laboratory when funding was very tight and where there were limited research equipment and facilities available. To make matters worse, inflation was running at 50–80% per month. The first few years were extremely difficult for Richard. However, he had an excellent group of enthusiastic, intelligent, hard-working and patient PhD students including initially Carlos Goncalves, Susana Wofchuk, Christianne Salbego, Elizabete Rocha and later Rodrigo Leal and Lucia Vinade. By 1990, within 3 years of his move to Brazil, four articles were published – a truly remarkable achievement. By 1998, 11 years after his arrival in Brazil, inflation had been conquered, the Biochemistry Department had moved to a new building, grants were flowing and the group had grown to 18 academics and postgraduate students. Most importantly to Richard, his original students had graduated and had their own postgraduate students. He had developed a number of very close friends, including Diogo Souza, and his scientific reputation in Brazil had been established.

Richard published 51 articles and reviews from his time at the Biochemistry Department in Porto Alegre. The major focus of Richard's early research in Brazil was a detailed investigation of a prominent phosphoprotein found in hippocampal slices from immature rats. This protein unexpectedly turned out to be GFAP, an astrocytic protein and this moved Richard's career toward glial cells and away from neurones for the first time. The results of the early studies on GFAP included details of the ontogeny of GFAP phosphorylation/dephosphorylation, the glutamate receptors involved as well as the role of L-type calcium channels, calcium and calcineurin; these studies were reviewed by Richard (Rodnight et al. 1997). The changes in GFAP phosphorylation were most likely related to the hypertrophy and proliferation of astrocytes, which coincided with synaptogenesis in the hippocampus. Very different responses were found in cortical and spinal cord astrocytes indicating that there were regional differences in astrocyte responses to glutamate. Elizabete Rocha found that lithium, at doses used in manic/depressive illness, induced GFAP phosphorylation, suggesting that it induced gliosis, and subsequent studies showed that lithium also altered the morphology of astrocytes in the hippocampus (Rocha and Rodnight 1994). Other projects were also initiated with PhD students; Tricia Kommers and Dani Oppelt extended the studies on GFAP phosphorylation; Guido Lenz and Carol Jacques–Silva worked on signal transduction pathways downstream of purinergic receptors in astrocytes, in collaboration with Joe Neary; Carmen Gottfried and Sirlene Cechin worked on stellation of astrocytes and the mechanisms involved, including acidification and the effects of extracellular matrix proteins.

While in Brazil, Richard had established a routine of travelling internationally to meetings every year and he always managed to somehow arrange to visit one or more of a small group of very close friends. He went to the USA to visit Ayse Dosemeci and Lucia Vinade in Washington, Joe Neary in Miami, Ann Cornell-Bell in New Haven or Olga Greengard in New York. He also went to Australia to visit me in Newcastle, as well as his son Vyvyan who lived in Melbourne. These visits allowed him to be part of a number of families for periods from a few days to a few weeks. My family hosted Richards 80th birthday in Newcastle in 2001 with Vyvyan and his mother Emer coming from Melbourne and London, respectively, to join us. It was a memorable evening. Richard had also invited me to go to Brazil, which I did on a number of occasions. As a result of these exchanges, we organized for some of Richard's students to come to Australia for periods of months up to a year. This allowed the students to broaden their horizons, improve their English and undertake studies with facilities often not available to them in Brazil. These visits have been one of the highlights of my life. Since 1995, there have been 20 students who have visited Newcastle from Brazil and from their research there have been 40 articles published that have included at least one Brazilian student as an author.

Richard had decided for a number of reasons, not the least being proximity to Vyvyan, to move to Australia, and at the age of 81 he moved to Newcastle so he could continue to be involved in science. He wrote articles from his work in Brazil and not only obtained research funding in Australia, but he also supervised Sirlene Cechin to work on astrocyte morphology as part of her PhD. Together they published Richards' last article in 2005 (Cechin et al. 2005). Richard came to work every day when he was not travelling and was writing a major review when he had a couple of bad falls in 2009. He fought bravely to continue in Newcastle, but eventually he moved to Castlemaine in Victoria where Vyvyan was then living. His greatest pleasure in the final years of his life was being with his son and his grandson Sylvan. Richard died peacefully with his family at his side on 29th June 2012 while listening to classical music that he had so loved throughout his life.

There are no conflicts of interest arising from this publication.