Obituary: Prof Willie Russell, molecular virologist, founder of Scientists for Labour, and Boys’ Brigade visionary

Prof Willie Russell
Prof Willie Russell
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Willie ­Russell, who was ­Emeritus ­Professor of Virology at the University of St Andrews, died peacefully in his sleep on 31 October at the age of 88.

Born into a working-class background in a tenement block in Glasgow, Willie lost his father when he was ­seven.

His mother, who was ­initially a cleaner at the Kelvingrove Museum and ended up being in charge of the Publications desk, had a passion for knowledge and education that she passed onto Willie, who gained a scholarship to attend Allan Glens School, Glasgow.

From there he went on to graduate with a degree and Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Glasgow University. In 1959, after two years of ­National Service as a ­chemist in Royal Ordnance factories, followed by two years in the research laboratories of J&P Coats Ltd in Paisley, he took the bold step of returning to academia and the even bolder step in changing fields from chemistry to the expanding discipline of virology.

Joining the newly-formed Medical Research Council and the University of Glasgow Unit of Experimental Virus Research, he used electron microscopy to investigate the structure of herpes viruses and showed that its genetic information was DNA, rather than RNA as had been previously thought.

In 1963, he moved to the Ontario Cancer Unit in Toronto, working on bacteriophage biology, structure and genetics, and in 1964 he became the first non-medical researcher in the Division of Bacteriology and Virology at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), London.

Whilst there he became interested in a wide variety of topics, which he continued to work and publish on throughout his career. These included such diverse subjects as the structure and ­replication of adenoviruses, the association of paramyxoviruses with chronic diseases such as ­multiple sclerosis, phosphorylation and the control of ­protein function, the handedness of DNA and its role in gene regulation and the molecular biology of mycoplasmas.

In 1977, Willie became ­Editor of the Journal of General ­Virology, the same year in which he was appointed head of the virology division, which he served until 1982 when he moved back to Scotland ­following the sudden death of his first wife, Dorothy, of a subarachnoid haemorrhage.

She was working as a GP in Edgware at the time and her premature departure had a big impact on everyone who knew the family, and especially on their teenage chidren, Lucy and Iain, who witnessed her death.

Willie was appointed chair of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of St Andrews, in which he established the virology unit that continues to thrive to this day. As well as continuing his own research, Willie also ­mentored many Ph.D. ­students who went on to have successful careers in science. He was always enthusiastic about science and virology in particular, encouraging members of the biochemistry department to submit research grants and publish their research in high quality journals. In 1987 he became a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Member of Council of the Society for ­General Microbiology.

From his youth Willie was a committed Christian Socialist – as a boy he attended a ­summer camp run by the socialist Clarion Society – but it was not until he was living in London that he joined the Labour Party.

He was active in the ­Hendon North Constituency party, standing for Barnet Council (in a safe Conservative ward) and being nominated by the Labour Party as a school ­governor. He was a keen ­supporter of the Campaign for the Advancement of State Education. After his move back to Scotland he was twice chair of North East Fife ­Constituency Labour Party, rescuing it from the brink of extinction in time to fight a ­vigorous campaign in the 1992 general election.

A dedicated internationalist, Willie was also chair of the Mid Scotland and Fife European Constituency Labour ­Party, where one of his colleagues recalls his skill at holding together a disparate body: “He was authoritative and gentle in dealing with individuals – but he was in charge!”

He persuaded people to act in concert by his example, by reasoned argument, and by the love and respect inspired by his transparent honesty.

In the 1990s, Willie’s energy and leadership were of critical importance in founding ­Scientists for Labour. He was the organisation’s first chair, holding the post until 2010, which involved him in repeated journeys to London. His wisdom and common sense, and the wide respect in which he was held within both the scientific community and the Labour Party, were invaluable as Scientists for Labour struggled (“sometimes successfully”, as a colleague recalls) to educate the Labour Party about the importance of science.

Willie lobbied for adequate funding for scientific research and education, encouraged fellow scientists to contribute their specialist expertise, and was particularly determined and courageous in his demand that policies in highly contentious areas such as nuclear power and animal experimentation should be based on scientific evidence.

His last contribution in this area was to frame a resolution for the 2016 Scottish Labour Conference calling for an ­evidence-based approach to the issue of genetic modification in agriculture.

In addition to his professional career, Willie had a wide range of interests, not least in the Boys’ Brigade movement. In 1942 he joined the 227th Glasgow company, known for its fine brass band. There, Willie soon learned to play the cornet, then the tenor horn and finally, the euphonium.

It was inevitable that he should become an officer in the company, then band officer and thereafter company captain. Over a span of 40 years, Willie served the BB movement, at local, battalion and national level. It gave him his lifelong love of music and his interest in public service. It also laid the foundations of an enquiring and practical ­Christian faith that was to prove such an influence on young men for years to come.

On retirement in 1995, Willie became Emeritus Professor and continued to ­develop his many research interests. Moving to Crail, he was an enthusiastic participant in church and festival activities, while retaining his membership of the St Andrews Chorus.

Willie had always been a ­truly competitive participant in sports and it was no great surprise that at the age of 80 he should join Crail Bowling Club where, characteristically, he became president for two and half years.

Willie Russell leaves behind a giant footprint of achievement, example and goodness that remains an inspiration to all whose lives were touched by his. He is survived by his second wife Reta, his step-son Willie and grand and great-grandchildren. His step-daughter Maggie and two children, Lucy and Iain, whom he adored.

Prof Richard Randall
Julian Crowe
Rev David Hamilton