Obituary: Professor Forbes W Robertson, FRSE, geneticist and garden historian
BORN: 29 January, 1920, Vancouver. Died: 1 June, 2012, Edinburgh, aged 92
Forbes was born in Canada. His father, Forbes Proctor Robertson was an Aberdonian and his mother, née Amy Dorothy Lancey, of English and German descent. Although born in Canada the family resettled, first in Eastbourne and then in Aberdeen, where he enrolled in Robert Gordon’s College. In 1941 he went to Aberdeen University and earned first-class honours in zoology where the Professor of Natural History was Lancelot Hogben, until he moved to a chair at Birmingham University. Forbes followed him and was appointed his assistant and lecturer in zoology; he obtained his PhD from Birmingham in 1945 (his DSc came from Edinburgh in l955).
In 1946, Forbes was appointed to the National Animal Breeding and Genetics Research Organisation with CH Waddington as Chief Geneticist. He soon met Eric Reeve who became his collaborator. Forbes wanted to study quantitative inheritance because “it was little understood and regarded as impossibly difficult”. Reeve had the mathematical skills to complement Forbes’s practical experimental ones.
The animal geneticists soon moved into the Institute of Animal Genetics in Edinburgh. Robertson & Reeve revelled in the opportunity to follow their own research path, working for some 14 years with fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) chosen for selection experiments since they replicate every two weeks.
In the early 1960s, Forbes broadened his research, first into ecological genetics and then into biochemical and molecular genetics and finally, after his move to Aberdeen in 1970, into human and medical genetics. Forbes worked on the ecological genetics of growth in the fruit fly, looking at the interaction between nutrition and selection for body weight, which had relevance to selection in livestock.
By 1966 Forbes had become interested in the biochemical analysis of one of the traits he was researching, growth, and with Bob Church, a Canadian visitor, started analysing genetic differences in the components of growth. In the late 1960s molecular biology was developing rapidly and Forbes applied new techniques to several complex topics. By this time he was dissatisfied with the lack of investment in the ARC Unit [it closed in 1980]. After a period of uncertainty, he was appointed to the chair and headship of the new Genetics Department in Aberdeen. His move presented him with the opportunity to study the causes of coronary heart disease. He found it was likely to be influenced by many genes with strong environmental interactions, including nutrition. From 1976-1985, he published a series of papers [mostly with Alastair Cumming] on the genetic component, involving studies of the population in North-East Scotland and analysing its relationship to genetic variation.
The breadth of Forbes’s scholarship is shown by his top five quoted papers. Two are in human genetics and one each in, quantitative, molecular and ecological genetics. His work is still commonly referred to in scientific works.
Forbes retired from his Aberdeen Chair in 1985 and became increasingly active in several public organisations, notably the Royal Society of Edinburgh (he was elected to Fellowship in 1974). He served in several capacities from 1976-1993, working to increase the credibility of the RSE in public affairs (he was awarded the RSE’s Bicentenary Medal in 1996).
At home, Forbes continued his lifelong interest in botany and from 1997-2011 published extensively on Scottish gardeners and their gardens (especially rock gardens). This included three books and numerous scholarly papers. He pioneered a new type of garden history that focused on the plants and the people who grew them rather than garden design. His latest book, in 2011, Patrick Neil: Doyen of Scottish Horticulture, was published in his 91st year. Forbes practised what he preached and created magnificent rock gardens at his homes, especially at Braid Farm Road in Edinburgh.
He was gifted with an extraordinary memory, a clear, perceptive and logical mind, spiced with a ready sense of humour. He was not afraid to ruffle the feathers of the scientific establishment. He was very hard working and was a man of unwavering principle; an outstanding mentor of his many PhD students and younger colleagues.
A devoted husband, father and grandfather, he was happiest with his family and friends in whose company he explored many, mostly mountainous lands, near and far, with plants and plant photography never far from mind.
He enjoyed the enduring love and wholehearted support of Katharine, his wife for nearly 65 years. He touched the lives of all those who knew him and will be much missed. He is survived by brother Angus, his wife Katherine, his three children Alastair, Colin and Fiona and six grandchildren.
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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