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Bradbury, James Howard (1927–2016)

by Jan Elliott and Bill Foley

Howard Bradbury, by Bob Cooper, n.d.

Howard Bradbury, by Bob Cooper, n.d.

ANU Archives, ANUA 226-826

Dr [James] Howard Bradbury, aged 89, passed away on Monday 28 November following surgery some weeks earlier. He is survived by his wife Ruth, daughters Meredith, Annette and Joanne and families, including 20 great-grandchildren. His work on the prevention of konzo will continue through his many colleagues around the world.

Right at the end of my career I’ve had this wonderful opportunity, by the grace of God, to be able to address a preventable disease in Africa. It’s something I’d never thought would be possible.

Professor Bradbury followed in his father’s footsteps studying chemistry at Melbourne Technical College and Melbourne University followed by a PhD in polymer chemistry at Birmingham University. After a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, he worked for six years at CSIRO Wool Research Laboratories before accepting a Senior Lectureship in Chemistry at The Australian National University (ANU) in 1961. From 1961 to 1988 he pursued his teaching and research career at ANU, working on the structure of wool and NMR studies of biological macromolecules. His work pioneered the use of NMR spectroscopy and lead to the first detailed insight into the solution structure of proteins. Many of his students have gone on to eminent careers in science, government and academia. He enjoyed sabbatical appointments at Cornell University and three occasions at Oxford University and was awarded DSc degrees from Melbourne University as well as three research medals from the Royal Australian Chemical Institute and Melbourne University.

After speaking at a conference in India in 1974, he changed the focus of his research to food chemistry, analysing all the root crops of the South Pacific where he confirmed cassava, one of the most important crops, contained cyanide. In 1988 he took early retirement and joined the Botany and Zoology Department (now Research School of Biology) at ANU to continue his work on cassava in a major project funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. He met Dr Julie Cliff, an Australian doctor working in Mozambique, at a workshop on cassava safety in Nigeria in 1994 who inspired his work in developing simple kits to determine the cyanide levels in cassava and thiocyanate levels in urine (a measure of cyanide intake). In 1996 he travelled to Mozambique to test his kits in the field, which spurred later work to find a way to reduce cyanide levels in cassava flour. He developed ‘the wetting method’ that exploited the presence of active enzymes in the flour to reduce the cyanide levels before it was cooked. The simple treatments involved wetting the flour, spreading it in a thin layer on a mat for two hours and allowing the cyanide that was liberated by the action of the enzymes to escape safely as gas. It was trialled in Mozambique in 2005 to much success and also rid the flour of its bitter taste. In 2007 he was awarded the inaugural $2 a Day Award by the Institute of Chemical Engineers and appointed a Member of the Order of Australia.

In 2008 he contacted Professor Jean-Pierre Banea, Director of the National Institute of Nutrition in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to extend the reach of his ‘wetting method’. Using money raised from selling his kits to first-world countries, they were able to develop an intervention protocol in villages to teach the ‘wetting method’. In 2009 they were able to prevent the development of new cases of konzo, a crippling neurological disease caused by increased cyanide intake, in Kay Kalenge and 13 more villages since then.

Professor Bradbury was a prodigious networker and believed in encouraging everyone who showed an interest in his work. He founded the Cassava Cyanide Diseases Network, a free worldwide network and newsletter.

In 2016 the ANU devoted their Annual Giving Day to Professor Bradbury’s work on the prevention of konzo. A tax deductible fund has been setup to continue his work in preventing konzo in DRC.7

At ANU, Professor Bill Foley, Jan Elliott and Ursula Wiedemann will extend his legacy through continuing the supply of his kits and collaborations.

Some reflections:

‘He was a man of great intellect, enthusiasm, charm, wit, humility and good will. He was also a great humanitarian. I learnt a huge amount from him and am deeply indebted to him.’

— Former PhD student Professor John Carver, Director, Research School of Chemistry, The Australian National University, Australia

‘We have just lost a great person. Howard combined the best qualities of a scientist—rigor and innovation—with a deep humanity. He truly used his science to help the poorest of the poor, in this case people living in communities afflicted by the paralytic disease, konzo.’

— Dr Julie Cliff, Eduardo Mondlane University, Mozambique

PRONANUT a great scientific institution, particularly in the fight against the konzo. His memory will never be forgotten and we will continue his work in DRC.’

— Professor Jean-Pierre Banea, Director of the National Nutrition Program (PRONANUT), the Democratic Republic of Congo

‘Aging could not stop his interest and his motivating enthusiasm to use science for the prevention of this unfair disease konzo. His accomplish­ments are bigger than life, and will affect konzo research for a very long time to come.’

— Emeritus Professor Fernand Lambein, International Plant Biotechnology Outreach (IPBO), University of Ghent, Switzerland

‘It truly is a sad day—so many of us working on cyanogenic glucosides in cassava were connected to each other by Howard. His network was extraordinary. Howard was always a rigorous scientist and made sure he published everything so the knowledge would persist.’

— Associate Professor Ros Gleadow, Monash University, Australia

‘For more than 25 years, Howard worked tirelessly to translate science into effective actions to improve the lives of some of the poorest people in the world. He did it with humility and generosity but always insisted that the science underlying the interventions be the best possible.’

— Professor William Foley, Research School of Biology, The Australian National University, Australia

‘Sometimes, as members of a University, we get caught up in the search for grants, in the need to publish or perish, and in the day-to-day ructions of a competitive environment. I think someone like Howard reminds us about the other side of our work—the joy of doing good things, the value of others, and the role we play as citizens of a broader community.’

— Professor Allen Rodrigo, Director, Research School of Biology, The Australian National University, Australia

Citation details

Jan Elliott and Bill Foley, 'Bradbury, James Howard (1927–2016)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/bradbury-james-howard-32486/text40310, accessed 7 July 2022.

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