Obituary: Dr Eric Reeve, gifted researcher who applied his skills in field of genetics and scientific publishing

Born: 14 September, 1913, in Liverpool. Died: 14 December, 2011, in Edinburgh, aged 98.

Eric Cyril Raynold Reeve was born in 1913 in Liverpool, the son of a former Church of England missionary to Japan and a vicar’s daughter, and the second of four brothers. The family lived in several towns in England as his father changed parishes, including Great Yarmouth, Hockering and Lowestoft.

At the prep school in Lowestoft, Eric became a close friend of Benjamin Britten, who was head boy there. Later he boarded at Norwich Grammar School in Cathedral Close. At the end of his school days, he entered what was then St Peter’s Hall, Oxford, to study mathematics.

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After a year of his honours course, wanting a change, he opted for zoology, on his elder brother’s advice and without any prior experience of the subject. After vacation coaching by his brother, who was doing medicine, Eric was admitted to the zoology department at Oxford, where his lecturers included ES Goodrich, JZ Young and EB Ford. Later in his course, Eric competed for the Christopher Welch Research Scholarship which covered the fees for a four-year D Phil.

To his immense surprise, he won it. The previous winner had been Peter Medawar, a later Nobel Laureate.

The supervisor for his degree was JZ Young, who proposed a project in the application of mathematical analysis to differences in growth and form, a development of D’Arcy Thompson’s classic studies and Julian Huxley’s more recent theory of allometry.

His work entailed a study of three genera of New World anteaters which differed greatly in size, with increasing length of the snout bones compared with cranial length. Eric applied the new statistical methods developed by RA Fisher. This required analysis of a large number of measurements carried out by comparative anatomists over many years as well as samples he measured. This demonstrated that, while two of the genera were similar in the relative size of snout and cranium, the third was clearly different.

This was published as a study in the application of quantitative methods to systematics and was a truly pioneering contribution.

Later, in collaboration with PDF Murray, he extended the same kind of analysis to face and cranium length in horses, back to Eohippus (the dawn horse), demonstrating that relative face length declined in modern horses as they grew larger.

Eric’s next move was to the statistical department of Rothampstead Experimental Station to join a large team of statisticians, mathematicians and agronomists, led by Frank Yates, who were applying RA Fisher’s new methods of analysis to a mass of data relating to the yield of different crops on farms throughout England, with or without the application of various fertilisers This was published as a guide to Fertiliser Policy in War-time, since the war now dominated life. Yates moved on to lead a team, of which Eric was a member, which collected information on the relative safety of different kinds of air-raid shelter.

This was the first of a succession of official research groups during and after the war to which he was attached to study such topics as the effects of German bombing on British factories in towns such as Birmingham and Coventry and of American and British bombing on German factories, buildings, workers’ morale and marshalling yards.

When the war in Europe was over Eric went as liaison officer to participate in the large American effort to assess different consequences and effectiveness of bombing raids on Germany. During this period he met and married Edith Simon, a brilliant young author and talented artist, who later developed the original technique of scalpel-painting, often displayed in Edinburgh Festival exhibitions and always enthusiastically supported by Eric. He considered his meeting with Edith the most important event of his life.

By now, wanting to return to scientific research, he learnt from Peter Medawar that the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) was setting up an organisation designed to put British livestock production on a sounder scientific basis. The organisation was to have two divisions, one more academically oriented under CH Waddington and a more practically oriented group equipped with farms for different kinds of livestock.

Waddington invited Eric to join his group, of which I also became a member. In due course, the National Animal Breeding and Genetics Research Organisation, as it was first known, was based in Edinburgh, with Waddington’s Group settled in the Institute of Animal Genetics at Kings’ Buildings. Before we could move in we occupied the clubhouse of the Hendon Golf Club where Eric and I found ourselves sharing a room which served as a temporary laboratory.

We got on very well and, after deliberation, decided to collaborate. We had a similar sense of humour, our scientific experience was complementary and neither of us took ourselves too seriously, essential ingredients for long-term collaboration.

By 1947, comfortably installed in the institute, we could embark on our long-term study of the inheritance of body size in Drosophila melanogaster. A series of joint papers grew out of the effects of long-term selection, inbreeding and crossing strains, all of which had a bearing on the results of livestock and poultry breeding. These appeared as successive Studies in Quantitative Inheritance.

Since housing was scarce and expensive the ARC hired a large mansion, Mortonhall House, on the southern outskirts of Edinburgh, to house Waddington’s scientific staff and their families. Although it solved the immediate housing problem, communal living had its drawbacks and, in due course, families moved out to their own accommodation, including Eric and Edith, but not until just after the arrival of Antonia.

They moved first to Rosebery Crescent during which time Simon and Jessica were added to the family, followed, some decade later, by a move to Grosvenor Crescent, where they spent the rest of their lives.

As time passed, Eric’s and my interests diverged. He took up microbial and I ecological genetics. An important development was the foundation of a new genetics journal, Genetical Research.

The earlier popular Journal of Genetics had been bought by JBS Haldane, who edited it at a glacial rate, to general frustration. Hence the drive for the new journal which Eric edited with great success for 36 years, with unflagging attention to clarity and respect for the English language on the part of contributors. Eric was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1975. The Journal of Genetics disappeared with the Haldanes to India and little was heard of it thereafter.

Towards the end of his career Eric was invited to organise and edit the Encyclopaedia of Genetics, a Nature-sized volume of some 900 pages. This was a mammoth undertaking, which entailed a great deal of correspondence, since Eric’s aim was to assemble authoritative, lively and readable articles from leading geneticists across the board. The rights were later bought by the American Publishing Group, Taylor and Francis who had an eye for quality.

So much for Eric Reeve’s distinguished and varied scientific career. But what of the man? He was a person of high principle in the conduct of human affairs. He maintained an unruffled, tolerant attitude, not easily moved to anger.

A devoted husband and father, he enjoyed the company of friends and was never happier than in the maturing of a comic anecdote. A keen tennis player, he was in all respects a very civilised person whose passing is a loss to all who knew him. He is survived by Antonia, Simon and Jessica.

Forbes W Robertson