The Times

24. 11.2008


John Marion Thoday

A memorial service for John Thoday was held in Emmanuel College Chapel, Cambridge on Saturday November 22

The Rev. Jeremy Caddick, dean, officiated. Lord Wilson of Dinton, Master, Emmanuel College, read the lesson. Mr Thomas Basil Boam, and Dr. Richard Barnes, on behalf of Professor Henry Phillips, Professor of French, Manchester University, read reminiscences. Dr. Ken Edwards read an extract from Mankind Evolving by Theodosius Dobzhansky, and Burnt Norton by T.S. Eliot. Professor James N.Thompson Jr, David Ross Boyd, Professor of Zoology, University of Oklahoma, gave the address.

During the service Miss Gillian Thoday, cello, performed The Swan from The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saens and the Emmanuel College Chapel Choir sang.

Among others present were: Dr Thoday (widow), Mr Jonathan Thoday and Ms Leanne Newman (son and daughter-in-law), Miss Antonia Thoday (daughter), Miss Zoë Thoday, Mr Zachary Thoday (grandchildren), Mr and Mrs Deryck Baines with other members of the family together with representatives of the Department of Genetics, Fellows from Emmanuel College with many other friends and former colleagues.

Extracts from the Memorial Service

Emmanuel College Chapel

Saturday 22 November 2008

John Marion Thoday

Ph.D., Sc.D., F.R.S.

Life Fellow of the College

Formerly Arthur Balfour Professor of Genetics

30 August 1916 - 25 August 2008


Professor James N. Thompson, Jr

David Ross Boyd Professor of Zoology, University of Oklahoma

I find it both a happy and a sad opportunity to speak with you today. It is happy, because I spent five wonderful years in Cambridge under Professor John Thoday's guidance. I deeply value the solid friendships that were built then and that have endured these last 30+ years. But there is also loss. Today, we commemorate the life and academic accomplishments of a person who had a profound effect upon the professional development of his many students and colleagues, both here in Cambridge and around the world.

The scientific contributions by Professor John M. Thoday ScD, FRS, have international recognition. I will discuss some of them, but I will do so from the point of view of a student. Professor Thoday stimulated critical thinking. From my experience, this is where 'the Prof', as many of us called him, best excelled. He explored puzzles, he was excited by ideas, and he communicated that excitement to others.

I came to Cambridge from Oklahoma as a Marshall Scholar in 1970. I completed my PhD in Genetics in 1973 and spent two more years as a postdoctoral researcher on a Science Research Council grant to Professor Thoday. Those were some of the most intellectually stimulating years of my life. The atmosphere of the Department of Genetics during that period left an indelible mark. It crystallized my image of what an academically creative environment can, and should, be like. Ideas were put on the table, evaluated, challenged, revised, and challenged again. All this was done by the discussion participants without ego – well, maybe just a bit of healthy ego. It was a friendly exchange; everyone benefitted. It is a mark of Professor Thoday's academic leadership that ideas and people thrived.

The graduate students often attended some of the lectures that Professor Thoday, Michael Ashburner, Peter O'Donald, Don MacDonald, and others gave to Part II Genetics students. Sometimes it served as a good review of basic information, and sometimes it brought us up to date in an area of genetics with which were we less familiar. But even if we knew the material, it was an excellent forum in which to watch how talented teachers presented knowledge to intelligent, motivated undergraduates.

I remember clearly many of those lectures. One in particular by the Prof stands out, because it demonstrated his genuine excitement about his field. Exploring a topic in ecological genetics, slides were projected onto a small screen in the lecture room. From the focused attention of the students, you knew the group was as tied up in the story as he was. But his poise and humility also come through when, while pointing to an especially important aspect of a graph, he accidentally made a small mark on the projection screen with the pen he was holding. He paused a second, chuckled, and said, 'I guess I shouldn't have done that.' Then he went on with his talk. That small black mark remained on the screen for a long time and continued to remind me of the concentration and enthusiasm that can be brought to the classroom by a passionate mind.

Almost everyone in the department stopped what they were doing to gather in the common room at 10:30 and again at 3:30 for coffee and tea each day. The faculty and graduate students sat around a long table and talked about their recent results and about what they had heard or read. There were anecdotes about interesting personalities and discoveries. The stories were an education in themselves.

Sometimes there was good-natured baiting of one or more of us, but the openness of the exchange cemented us even more. Ideas and progress were freely shared, and one message came through subtly but clearly from Professor Thoday time and time again. It is all right, even encouraged, to compete intellectually with anyone anywhere else in the world, but you should never compete with your colleague next door or down the hall. They are your support. Working in such a friendly intellectual environment is not only more pleasant, it is usually more productive, than the secretive, driven attitude that defines the all-too-common alternative. Professor Thoday was the role model responsible for setting the open, trusting, mutually respectful tone of the Department of Genetics. One mark of this, the departmental library was never locked.

I also learned from travel with the Prof to Population Group meetings of the Genetical Society. He introduced his students to many fascinating people, both there and when they visited the department. His leadership positions in scientific societies and on boards is a testament to the respect he earned from these colleagues. Among other roles, he served as Vice President of a section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and as President of the Genetical Society.

There is something special about the way a good leader defines the environment in which their associates work. It is a combination of excitement, inquisitiveness, optimism, and tolerance. There were, indeed, many instances when traits like tolerance came in handy. I remember, for example, a letter he read one day at coffee. It was from a prospective student who wanted to carry out research proposed by his guru. When does Divine Intervention occur, during DNA transcription or mRNA translation? That is, does Divine Intervention occur when a newly activated gene makes the initial RNA transcript? Or is it during translation, when that RNA molecule is used to produce the protein product for a cell? The Prof declined the student's application respectfully and, giving a hint of his sense of humor, suggested that he contact Francis Crick instead. Later he worried that Crick might misunderstand, thinking that the Prof felt there was substance in an inquiry about the molecular timing of Divine Intervention. But still, he respected the student's right to ask the question.

From the 'student's point of view', one sees a mentor. But from the 'outside', one sees the public products of individual intellectual creativity – the research papers and conference addresses.

A summary I read of his research accomplishments recently used a telling phrase more than once, 'contrary to accepted theory' or 'contrary to theoretical expectation'. Professor Thoday's genius was in having the courage to explore phenomena that others dismissed or overlooked. He found precious prizes that way. In widely-cited publications, he pioneered the experimental mapping of the genes of small effect that contribute to continuous, quantitative phenotypic variation. When he began, it was thought to be impossible. Now 'QTL mapping' is a major division of population genetics, with applications in areas from agriculture to medicine.

Other landmark papers explored the effects of selection to explain, among other things, the unexpected observation that selection does not use up all available genetic variation. In this he focused on the role of environmental diversity and unpredictability. Genetic variation is the rule. He said, 'There is no single thing that is the Drosophila genome or the Human Genome. There are as many genomes as there are individuals.'

His studies of the effects of selection included masterful experimental designs to model disruptive selection, the favoring of multiple types in the same interbreeding population. 'Contrary to expectations,' he showed that such selection can maintain genetic variation and can even make steps toward establishing partially isolated populations. A step toward speciation, 'contrary to expectations.'

I drew an important lesson from his body of work. Do not just be driven to support your theory's predictions. Let the biology of the organism tell you what is going on. Be open-minded and observant, for the unexpected is often much more interesting than the predicted.

The last research entry in Professor Thoday's list of publications is one we coauthored with my graduate student, Mingull Jeung. It includes an historical summary that the Prof prepared about investigating the polygenic basis of genetic variation. I especially value this paper, because it represents a contribution from three academic generations: Professor Thoday, his student, and his academic grandchild. Dictionaries tell us that a 'mentor' is a 'trusted counselor or guide'. But I like my own description better. A mentor is a person who challenges you, who supports you, and who instills their wisdom, standards of accomplishment, and personal ethic while allowing you to think you are discovering some of those values for yourself. Professor John M. Thoday was a mentor to me and many others. And we now work to pass on the best of what we learned from him to our own students.

I learned of the Prof's failing health from my friend, Michael Ashburner, at a recent genetics meeting. I began drafting a card, but it was not completed before his passing. In recognizing its message about Professor Thoday's respect for people and respect for ideas, I would like to share part of it with you now.

'Dear John,

I think of writing you very often, but then unexpected things come up and it gets pushed to the edge of my mind. During the next couple of weeks, one of my students will finish and defend his thesis. It involves a question that has roots in things I learned from you and which has dimensions that are still fresh and challenging. Working with him reminds me almost every day of the guidance you gave me. While that was quite a few years ago, somehow it doesn't really seem that long. I hear myself giving subtle suggestions and encouragement of the same type you gave me. I thanked you then, and I hope you will accept an even more mature and heart-felt thank you now.'

Through untold threads, an honored mentor's legacy lives on.


Thomas Basil Boam B.E.M.

Former Chief Techician in the Departments of Botany and Genetics University of Sheffield

John Thoday and I go back a long way. We first met in 1948 in the Department of Botany, University of Sheffield. John had served in the Royal Air Force, I could tell because he had just taken off his R.A.F. greatcoat. I had served in the Army, and I think in some strange way 'we clicked'.

They were very heady days. This was a small group within Botany probably like one man and his dog!

John Thoday came as Assistant Lecturer in 1947 but in 1954, after just seven years, he had risen through the ranks and by that time had founded the Department of Genetics, something that might have been unknown in Sheffield but for John.

For those of you who knew him, I don't need to tell you what kind of a fellow he was. My thoughts are absolutely personal. He was a wonderful man. I won't describe him in much detail, except to say that he encouraged any person he met to fulfil their potential.

I remember we were talking one day and he knew I had a passion for plant cytology, the preparation of material to examine chromosome structure. He suggested that it might be a good idea if I spent a few weeks with L.F. La Cour. He was the doyen of cytology technique and a joint author of the current handbook at that time, namely 'The Handling of Chromosomes' by C.D. Darlington and L.F. La Cour. John sent me, all expenses paid, to the John Innes Horticultural Institution. I spent a month with La Cour and came back to Sheffield with experience of all the latest techniques.That was something I had hoped for and I say thank you John for what you did for me.

By 1954 things had changed. The new Department now consisted of a Senior Lecturer, an Assistant Lecturer, myself and Junior Technician. At this time graduate students were attracted to the Department to work for Ph.D's. John Thoday's teaching was very informative and at times amusing. At practical classes, at which I was fortunate to demonstrate, there was always lively discussion and a genuine interest.

In 1958 there was a need for more space and the University offered to provide a prefabricated building some short distance from the Main Campus. Plans went ahead but in 1959, to our loss and Cambridge's gain, John left Sheffield. We kept in touch, and in 1965 he invited me to Cambridge on the day his election to a Fellowship of the Royal Society was announced.

In 1986, I took early retirement, and John and Doris attended my Retirement Dinner, which was a very pleasant surprise.

For some years now my wife and I have regularly visited our daughter and family in Cambridge. On these occasions I have always taken the opportunity to spend some time with John.

Now I should have said this at the very beginning but when we first met he had a twinkle in his eye. Those of you who knew him will remember. Everytime I went to Clarkson Road the twinkle was as bright as ever. We would often talk about our time together in Sheffield, we had so many happy memories.

The last time I saw him was in late July. We spent some time in the garden with Doris; we had coffee and cake, and after about forty minutes he said I am rather tired. The twinkle was only just there.A wonderful man- and someone I have been privileged to know.

Professor Henry Phillips

Professor of French, University of Manchester

Former Fellow of Emmanuel College

(Read by Dr Richard Barnes, Senior Tutor)

John Thoday was a great servant of science, of the College and of the University. That is the public face of the man whom we all knew and admired. Behind the public face, however, there exist a number of private faces which we do not always share because we do not all share the same contexts. My brief tribute, composed in the heart of deepest France, constitutes a memory of John which is certainly personal, since it is personally felt, but which evokes in me still the sense of fellowship and friendship which was and remains possible in the context of a Cambridge college. It is well known to those Fellows who remember me that John and I, along with a number of others, were the stalwarts of the all-weather bowling group which assembled almost every weekday and after Fellows' Christmas Dinner. I was introduced to this pastime by John Thoday and Peter Clemoes. Historically, bowling featured among those activities much descried by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English religious moralists, some of whom may have been found among our own academic forerunners, as a criminal waste of time. I never looked back. This was not so much because of the game itself, but because of what we all shared as a sense of immediate fun and also as a sense of history. Indeed, veterans like John were able to regale us - more than once - with stories from the past, sometimes with the same stories, which were absorbed into our own contribution to the bowling lore. More importantly, the Fellows' Garden became a space within which we could learn things about each other in circumstances where differences could evaporate and where we could be what we could not in, let us say, the Governing Body. Within these circumstances, John and I struck up what I regarded as a special relationship which certainly transcended our political differences but which also, often tacitly, included a sort of conspiratorial collaboration. I guess we liked each other. Obviously, we talked regularly about certain things like gardening and John was always pleased to be asked about his record-keeping on rainfall. I believe John and I also shared a sense of gentle wickedness, at least I think it was that, which his wonderful laugh and gleam in the eye frequently betrayed. This memory may be short on particulars. What I have wanted to portray is rather the way in which a Cambridge college functions on a personal level within its traditions, not least where different generations can cohabit profitably and where a learning process is a conversation. Those conversations with John Thoday are an undying part of my own memory, and enriched my life in College. They stand also as a tribute to the College community that was and is Emmanuel, and of which John was a good and generous servant.

Readings and Reminiscence


Dr Ken Edwards

Former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester

From Mankind Evolving


Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900 - 1975)

'I have made the four winds that every man might breath there-of like his brother during his time. I have made every man like his brother, and I have forbidden that they do evil; it was their hearts that which undid what I have said'. This utterance, ascribed to the Egyptian god Re, antedates by some four and a half thousand years the Declaration of Independance, which states "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' But, surley, Re as well as Thomas Jefferson knew that brothers often look and act unlike. Brothers, though dissimilar, are yet equal in their right to share in patrimony of their fathers.

A newborn infant is not a blank page: however, his genes do not seal his fate. His reactions to the world around him will differ in many ways from those of other infants, including his brothers. My genes have indeed determined what I am, but only in the sense that, given the succession of environments and experiences that were mine, a carrier of a different set of genes might have become unlike myself.

From Burnt Norton


T.S.Eliot (1888 - 1965)

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.

What might have been is an abstraction

Remaining in perpetual possibility

Only in the world of speculation.

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

I first met John Thoday more than 40 years ago at a meeting of the Genetical Society, but I did not get to know him well until, a few years later, he appointed me to a Lectureship in the Department of Genetics at Cambridge. I must admit that I approached this job with some trepidation for I had very little teaching experience and no knowledge of Cambridge. But when I arrived I found John extremely helpful and supportive to me, as he was to all new members of staff. In fact he seemed to run a one-man staff development agency at a time when that idea was only occasionally whispered in universities! So my transition to Cambridge was smooth and fulfilling – thanks to John. Some years later on one day in 1980 he took me on one side, told me he was planning to take a year's leave to write a book and expressed the hope that I would run the department during his absence. I began to demur, pointing out that I had just become a College tutor and had a couple of new research grants, but John interrupted my protestations saying, 'Before you say no, consider the alternatives; which of your colleagues would you want to run the department?' I had great respect for my scientific colleagues and enjoyed their friendship – but I saw the force of his argument and I accepted. So I did run the department during his leave, and also during the next few years for when he returned he insisted I should continue as Head of Department. During that period he was again very supportive of what I was doing in the department, and also of my increasing forays into wider university business, a phase which eventually led to my move into full time administration, firstly in the Old Schools here in Cambridge and late to Leicester University. So John had significant influence on the development of my career at several stages, and I am very grateful for his help, advice, encouragement and above all his friendship

I also greatly admired John as a scientist. He was hugely enthusiastic about genetics and had a profound insight into the significance of genetics and evolutionary biology in helping us as human beings to understand our relationship to the rest of the biological world and to one another. It is with these themes in mind that I selected two readings. The first is from an essay by Theodosius Dobzhansky, a distinguished American geneticist, who writes about the issue that, while we all recognise the equality of worth of all individuals, we are not all identical. And the second is an extract form a poem by T. S. Eliot which I think resonates with John's view of the sense of that biological evolution has a continuity and its own history written in the form of DNA sequences in individual genomes.


Chosen by John Thoday

I strove with none , for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

Walter Savage Landor (1775 - 1864)