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Leach, Simon (1920–2005)

Emeritus Professor Simon Leach, who has died of pneumonia in Melbourne, aged 84, embodied the connection between the arts and sciences.

He considered science an abstract poetry, but as the sonnet is a product of form so was his thinking bound by immutable laws of chemistry.

At the beginning of his career, biochemistry was not a scientific discipline. He started out in the war years as an industrial chemist in a Manchester oil refinery experimenting with the viscosity of oil.

There are parallels to be drawn with alchemy; he solved the conundrum his base metal did indeed turn to gold, adding ingredients to oil that allowed pilots to fly at altitude.

He and his wife Pamela migrated to Australia in 1949 when he was recruited for a research position at the CSIRO by Sir Ian Clunies Ross, who was visiting university laboratories across Britain.

He was somewhat dismayed to find on his arrival in Melbourne that the CSIRO labs shared warehouse space with grain merchants in Flinders Lane. It seemed an unprepossessing beginning yet his scientific life blossomed from this time.

Dr Gordon Lennox, who had assembled his group "much as Noah selected candidates for his ark", with a representative of each area of science, headed up the team.

Their primary area of research was into the keratins resident in wool fibre, important in the depilation of sheepskins a linchpin of the fellmongering industry. The establishment of Australia's reputation for fine washable wool products owes much to this pioneering work.

By 1968 he had accepted a chair in the biochemistry department at Melbourne University. Under his tutelage some of today's world-class scientists began their careers.

As well as being a creative thinker, Leach, known simply as "Syd" or "Prof" to his students, was an exacting but patient teacher. His laboratory became a centre for collaboration.

At first, hard sphere models of molecules were used as an expression of the unique and beautiful structures of proteins. At the end of his career he would be using a silicon graphics workstation to perform molecular dynamics simulations.

He left many gifts behind him. One of the most enduring was the establishment of a biochemistry conference, held each year in Lorne.

The conference, held in Erskine House, brings scientists together from across the globe. The conference celebrated its 30th year last week, when a medal for excellence in science was presented in his honour.

After a sabbatical stint at the National Institute for Health in Washington DC with Chris Anfinsen, who during this time won the Nobel Prize, Leach brought to Melbourne the technique for synthesising peptide antigens. Thus the surface of proteins was reimagined.

He was a man who loved music and spent his free time at chamber or symphony concerts. He walked rigorously until his later years and loved the bush, and he delighted in the university's proximity to the Italian eateries in Lygon Street.

He was, in the great tradition of artists, writers and philosophers, a humble lodestone for his students.

He is survived by his daughters Dr Deborah Leach and Carolyn Leach-Paholski, and one grandson. Simon Joshua Leach, biochemist, was born September 13, 1920, died January 7.

Original publication

  • Newcastle Herald (NSW), 14 February 2005, p 53

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Citation details

'Leach, Simon (1920–2005)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/leach-simon-16155/text28102, accessed 25 November 2017.

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