We have walked with giants

(submitted by Sé O Hanlon, April 2008)
Obituary of Frank Winder, as published in the Irish Times.

Frank Winder: Professor of Biochemistry, Naturist, Adventurer and Dedicated Scholar

Professor Francis Gerard Augustine Winder died on 30th December 2007 aged 79, having lived a tremendously energetic, inspiring and fruitful life. He received his early education at Belvedere College where he developed his two enduring obsessions, an association with and love of mountains and the pursuit of scientific enquiry. Forsaking the excitement of the school’s football fields, Frank and his friend Michael Gorman spent their spare time cycling on their worn out war-time bicycles (with war-time diets sometimes consisting only of dates ) around the Irish countryside on botanical and zoomorphic forays. Frank entered UCD in 1945 to study science and came to the attention, as a promising young naturalist, of Arthur Stelfox of the Natural History Museum. Stelfox introduced Frank to Philip Graves who had recently returned to live in Ireland having been long-time correspondent of The Times in the Near East, author of several books about the area and author of 21 of the 24 volumes of the official record of the 1939 – 1945 World War. (Philip Graves was the grandson of Charles Graves, Bishop of Limerick, Mathematician, Fellow of the Royal Society and President of the Royal Irish Academy from 1861 -1866. Philip was the son of A.P Graves, collector and writer of Irish songs, another of whose sons was Robert Graves, the writer.)

Philip Graves was a keen entomologist who made a large study of Middle Eastern butterflies and like many other entomologists was interested in the Mountain Ringlet, Erebia epiphron. The butterfly had been found on Croagh Patrick and Nephin around 1900 but, in spite of many searches, had not been found since. Graves had the idea that, since the larva of this butterfly fed on grass and the Kerry mountains are particularly grassy, it might be found in the Kerry Mountains. Graves dispatched Frank (now 18 years), his bicycle and a butterfly net to Kerry where he spent his days high in neighbouring Mountains of Mangerton, Tori, Tommies, Purple and the Reeks. He failed to find the Mountain Ringlet but, on the last morning while searching some lower regions around the lakes, he caught a green dragonfly which was unfamiliar to him. The dragonfly was identified as Cordulia aenea, not previously recorded in Ireland and the specimen is now in the National Museum.

Later the Royal Irish Academy gave Frank £5 to explore the plants of the Mullaganattin Range where the most interesting plant he found was Polystichum lonchitis, a very rare fern new to that part of Kerry. A few days later he moved to the south-east flanks of Knocknagantee at Eagle’s lake. Between the lake and the summit there is a formidable cliff over 1000 feet high. Frank climbed into a steep, dark gully which seemed a likely place for alpine plants. He ascended the gully for a couple of hundred feet but experienced difficulty and fell about 60 feet on to a ledge. He was badly bruised but back on his bicycle after two days. He did, however, resolve not to attempt such a climb again until he had rock-climbing experience. A few years later Elizabeth Healy and Frank climbed the steeper, clean buttress on the left of the gully and named the climb ‘The Bastille’.

Frank was a founder member of the Irish Mountaineering Club in 1948. At that time the majority of members were hill-walkers and only a small number of them had any experience of roped rock-climbing. Frank soon became one of the most highly skilled and was one of a small group of pioneers opening up climbing crags in Wicklow, Kerry, Donegal and Connemara – in those early days equipped with heavy hemp ropes and clinker-shod boots. His climbing expeditions were extended to include the Mournes, the Antrim Coast, Wales, Scotland, the European Alps, Yosemite and the Grand Tetons. He retired from and returned to climbing several times over the decades, climbing to a high standard into his late sixties. He retained his connection with the club and held the post of President during the years 1966-8 and again in 1997-8. He put up some of the classic routes still highly regarded by successive generations of climbers, recognised even now when climbing standards have risen so hugely. Winder’s Slab, Winder’s Funnel and Winder’s Crack are climbs in Dalkey Quarry named after him and an enduring monument to his skill and bravery.

Walking, or climbing, with Frank was an education and a joy. He revealed the significance of the apparently insignificant – a slight change of colour in a brackish pool, a little movement in the grass. He knew the name and habits of every shy leaflet and rare blossom, and every small creature that rustled in the heather. Even climbing up some wet and vegetated gully, he would be heard to exclaim with the delight of discovery – ‘Ah, Adelanthus lindenbergianus’ or some such. Or, instead, the voice might float down from above, declaiming, as the rope ascended slowly – interrupted by many grunts – ‘The unpurged images of day recede….’ or other Yeatsian stanza. Yeats and other poets always accompanied Frank in his mind; he could be heard muttering poetry away to himself as he walked along or scanned the mountains searching out climbing possibilities.

Frank graduated from UCD with a First Class Honor B.Sc. degree in Biochemistry in 1948 and completed an M.Sc. by research the following year under the supervision of the very distinguished Professor E.J. Conway. He then took up employment at a Glaxo research laboratory where he investigated the metabolism of moulds. Throughout the 1940s the chemotherapy control of tuberculosis was the subject of intensive international research and The Medical Research Council of Ireland set up a small team to seek an effective chemotherapeutic agent. In 1950 the group was installed in a separate building in TCD and Frank joined them: His brief was to identify distinctive features of the tubercle bacillus and to relate these to the activity of the new anti-tuberculosis drugs. He initiated a remarkably successful series of wide-ranging projects on a variety of mycobacterial metabolites. This unit was under the direction of Vincent C. Barry, one of the greatest Irish chemists of the time, and they developed a class of rimino compounds that proved very effective in the treatment of tuberculosis and leprosy. Indeed the drug, clofazamine (originally called B663 by the Barry group), arising from these efforts, is part of the 3-drug combination in use world-wide to this day for the treatment of leprosy.

Frank joined the staff of TCD as a Lecturer in the Department of Biochemistry in 1960 where he ultimately became a Fellow of Trinity College in 1962, Reader in 1966, Dean of Graduate Studies 1974-77 and Professor in 1975. He was conferred with the degree of Doctor of Science in 1972. He served as Director of the Biology Teaching Centre (1986-91) and was co-opted to Senior Fellowship in 1985: He served on the Board of College where he made valuable contributions to the debates on policy and other Board business, frequently striking a very independent stance. He retired officially in 1996 but continued to come to College every day until shortly before his death.

Besides his contributions to the development of the anti-TB and anti-leprosy drugs, Frank’s greatest accomplishment, and legacy to this day, was on the pioneering work he did while at Trinity, in conjunction with a few generations of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, on the mode of action of the primary anti-TB drug, isonaizid (INH), and mechanism of resistance to it. The present world-wide crisis of MDR (multiple drug resistant)-TB and XDR (extensive drug resistant)-TB are largely due to resistance to INH and rifampin within the tuberculosis bacterium (Mycobacterium tuberculosis). Frank in the 1970s recognised that INH was a “pro-drug” and had to be activated by an enzyme (catalase-peroxidase) in the tuberculosis bacterium to the active form of INH. He then correctly predicted that resistance to INH, which was then emerging, was due to mutations in that enzyme. He also showed that the mechanisms by which the activated form of INH killed the sensitive bacteria were by inhibition of their cell wall fatty acids (the so-called mycolic acids). Frank kept up with development in this area of research and public health and was very aware of his contributions. However, as always, he was humble, attributing the work to his graduate students and colleagues. His published work continues to be cited internationally.

In the 1950s emigration from Ireland reached the 100,000 mark and the population of the Republic fell to below 3 million, Frank was one of a group of young people who formed Tuairim, a kind of Young Ireland movement designed to examine Irish society with fresh eyes, uninhibited by the shadows of the Civil War: They limited the membership to women and men below the age of forty and attracted to it an extraordinary collection of bright people. Frank was the third Chairman of the Society and brought with him an intense conviction that the political and economic problems would yield to rigorous analysis and discussion. It is no surprise that several members of the Society achieved the highest level in their professional lives and held considerable influence in determining the shape of the modern Ireland which we now enjoy.

Frank was elected to membership of the Royal Irish Academy in 1961 and held the office of Vice President three times. He was particularly interested in the work of the Praeger Committee for Field Natural History on which he served for the periods 1975-83 and 2001-07. He was fully supportive of the aims of the Wicklow Uplands Council, served on the committee and acted as a mediator in sensitive discussions.

He will be so missed by his loving wife Jeanne, family and an enormous circle of friends.

FGA Winder: Born 14 April 1928, died 30 Dec.2007