Obituary: Craig Sharp, veterinary scientist who became father of sports science in the UK

NC Craig Sharp
NC Craig Sharp
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NC Craig Sharp BVMS, PhD, DSc, FIBiol, FBASES, FPEAUK, MRCV, veterinary scientist and pioneering sport scientist. Born: 6 November, 1933 in Glasgow. Died: 21 March, 2018 in Birmingham, aged 84

One day in1969, along the back straight of the Victoria Park Athletics track in Glasgow, two local men from very different backgrounds were locked in dialogue. One, a brilliant young veterinary pathologist, was explaining the physiology of muscle contraction to an athletics coach named John Anderson, who would later train world-class athletes including Liz McColgan and Dave Moorcroft. Following the tutorial, Anderson stared at the various cell organelles drawn on the cinder track and exclaimed, “You simply have to tell this to all the other coaches out there. Nobody knows it!” The name of the young vet was Craig Sharp, and that moment marked a turning point in his life. He had been mulling over an offer from Cambridge for the Chair of Veterinary Pathology, but instead applied for a lowly lectureship in exercise physiology at Birmingham University, having decided his destiny lay in his other great love, sport.

The previous 15 years in veterinary science had hardly been wasted. Studying at Glasgow University Vet School in the 1950s under Sir William Weipers was to be exposed to the white heat of excellence. Lectures were delivered by the best in their fields, including future Nobel Laureates, James Black, Andrew Huxley and Jim Watson, and his mentor, Bill Jarrett FRS. After graduating, Sharp worked part-time in large animal veterinary practice (including stints at Mossgiel, the farm of Robert Burns) and as an assistant lecturer while he completed his PhD into the development of the first vaccine (Dictol) against the cattle lungworm parasite, Dictyocaulus viviparus, supervised by Bill Jarrett. This work would later be submitted to the Nobel committee for consideration.

In between studies, he was taught squash by the eminent work physiologist, John Durnin, and captained the Scottish Universities Cross Country team. In 1963 he was seconded to Kenya to help set up a Faculty of Veterinary Science, spending much of the next seven years in East Africa. During his time there he continued to run (sometimes as the drag for the Limuru Hunt, sprinkling Jackal urine as scent along the way), and played squash for Kenya. This continuing love of sport manifested itself in two notable achievements. The first was to set a new record of 6 hours, 48 minutes for running up Mt Kilimanjaro, an ascent of 4,000 metres, and the second was to establish the running speed of a cheetah scientifically. This he did by standing in the back of an open Landrover, holding a stopwatch in one hand and proffering meat in the other to a young female cheetah who was timed from the speeding vehicle over 220 yards. The average of three runs gave a speed of 64.3mph.

The trackside conversion in 1969 from Veterinary Science to Sport Sciences may have seemed dramatic, but for Sharp, ”I had been heading that way since about 1965.” His conversations with John Durnin in Glasgow and readings of early exercise physiology texts had influenced him, and he was already schooled in the practical business of training for squash and running. In addition, he had been filling in time since his return from Africa as a professional squash coach, impressing on him the central role of the coach in elite sport which would be a guiding tenet of his new career.

This began at Birmingham University in 1971. Sharp’s talents as a scientist and communicator were soon influencing the approach to sport nationally. He co-founded, with Bill Tuxworth, the country’s first Human Motor Performance Laboratory, and a number of national squads soon beat a path to his door for free testing and advice. He also found time to help train Jonah Barrington to some of his six world squash titles. He was soon appointed to the British Olympic Association Medical Committee, and helped to take 90 competitors for altitude training at St Moritz before the 1972 Olympics. The next 15 years witnessed a sea change as laboratories, university courses and research in sport sciences proliferated, and coaching became more professional. Sharp’s central role in this transformation was recognised in 1987, when the British Olympic Association invited him to establish the British Olympic Medical Centre at Northwick Park Hospital.

During his five-year tenure he helped to guide the training of notable champions including Steve Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent, Steve Ovett and Audley Harrison, and also found time to advise Glasgow Rangers FC. In 1992 he left the BOMC to become the first Chair of Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick, and remained immensely proud of his Fellowship of the International Equine Institute in Limerick, where he continued to lecture for many years. He returned to England in 1994 to become Professor of Sport Sciences at West London Institute of Higher Education (later Brunel University), a position he retained as Emeritus Professor on his retirement in 2005. During his professional life, he published extensively and authored several books on Walking Physiology (1985), Exercise Physiology of Children (1991), Equine Physiology (1998), Physiology of Dance (1999) and Aging and Fitness (2002).

Craig Sharp collected numerous awards, including the International Olympic Committee’s prestigious Sport and Wellbeing award, the Sir Roger Bannister Medal from the British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine, the Dunky Wright Memorial Medal for services to Scottish Athletics, Fellowships of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Institute of Biology, and Physical Education Association (UK), and Visiting Professorships at the Universities of Exeter and Stirling. His proudest moment came in 2005 when he was awarded an Honorary DSc by the University of Glasgow to add to his Honorary DSc from the University of East London. He was undoubtedly one of the opinion leaders in the field and not for nothing was he dubbed “The Founder of UK Sport Sciences”.

These achievements might be sufficient for any man, but Craig Sharp was a man of many parts. He was an accomplished musician, playing the classical guitar to a high standard. He retained a lifelong interest in jazz, presenting the weekly Mood for Night Owls jazz programme for Kenya Radio. He was also resident Poetry Critic on Radio Clyde in the 1970s, and an accomplished Burns scholar, owning several original manuscripts. A friend to many Scottish poets, he once drove 1,200 miles in 22 hours to attend the funeral of Sorley MacLean in the Kirk at Portree on Skye. It is entirely fitting of the man that, while one of Sharp’s earliest publications was entitled “Inhibition of immunological expulsion of helminths by reserpine” (Nature, 1968), his last was “Born at the Ploughtail – Ploughing and Robert Burns” (Burns Chronicle, 2014). Few combined art and science as seamlessly, nor garnered so many friends from both spheres.

Always a warm, generous and modest man, Norman Churchill Craig Sharp was born on 6 November 1933 on the Great Western Road, Glasgow, to Norman and Sheila. He was educated at Kilcreggan and Kent Road Primary Schools, and then Morrison’s Academy, Crieff. He died on 21 March 2018 after a stroke.

He will be greatly missed by family and friends. A celebration of Craig’s life will take place on 4 May at 1pm in Merchants’ Hall, Edinburgh.

Colin Boreham