16 November 1917 - 28 October 2006
Albert Frederick (Bert) Crowther, was born in Todmorden, Yorkshire on 16th November 1917. His education started at Roomfield Primary and then Todmorden Secondary Schools, where his favourite subjects were Maths and Chemistry. He was a keen sportsman and played for the school's Football & Cricket Teams. He used to say that when practising in the nets it was preferable to go in at half past rather than at the top of the hour because the minute hand of the pavilion clock took 31 or 32 minutes to go up, and 28 or 29 minutes to descend. He used idle away his time all year in the Divinity lessons, then come top in the end-of-year exams to spite the teacher who had said that he that was a hopeless case.
It was expected that he would leave school at 15 or 16 and go into his grandfather's mill - he didn't know himself the calibre of his intellect - until one teacher with vision made him sit the scholarship exam for Cambridge which he passed.
Bert went up to St Catharine's College, Cambridge in 1936 to read Chemistry, where he met his lifelong friend Aaron Lask. Awarded his MA he stayed on at St Catharine's to do a PhD studying heterocyclic compounds of nitrogen. By then, ICI had recognised his potential and offered financial assistance during his PhD and guidance with some of the projects.
He completed his PhD in 1942, and joined ICI at Blackley where he worked in the dyestuffs division. This he found unsatisfying and transferred at the first opportunity to medicinal chemistry developing antimalarials for the British Army campaigning in S E Asia. One of his experiments exploded in his face and there was some doubt as to whether he would regain his sight. It was while at Blackley that he met George Driver who was to become a lifelong friend.
His intellect had been recognised by the War Department and he had been forbidden from joining up - he was of far greater value to the war effort in the chemistry lab. He always felt a debt of honour to the Tommies who fell on the battlefield, hence his favourite charities have always been ones which aid ex-servicemen and their families. However, he was in the Home Guard where he rose to the dizzy height of lance-corporal. He told me that the TV programme Dad's Army was no exaggeration. On one occasion his sergeant asked him if he really were a chemist. When Bert replied in the affirmative, the sergeant said: "In that case, do you think you could get me a hot-water-bottle?" Bert's response was never recorded.
In 1944, he married Enid, a Todmorden lass, a headmaster's daughter whom he had known from before he went to Cambridge. At first they lived with his recently-widowed father-in-law, John Bentley. Their first son, John, arrived in 1945 and Michael two years later. They then moved to their first house in Marple Bridge where Peter was born in 1952.
In 1957 he moved to ICI's Mereside labs in Alderley Park where he headed the team of chemists working in collaboration with the pharmacologist Jim (later Sir James) Black in the invention of beta-blocker drugs. After two years of synthesising hundreds of related molecules, the compound, propranolol, which was to become known as 'Inderal' was made. This was found to be 20 times as active as a previous beta-blocker, 'Alderlin', and proved to be a hugely successful product for ICI and improved the quality of life for countless thousands of patients suffering from angina. Bert greatly enjoyed the intellectual buzz of working with his team of chemists: M S Chodnekar, Walter Hepworth, Ralph Howe, David Gilman, Bernard McLoughlin, Biri Rao, R P Slatcher, Les Smith, John Stephenson, M A Stevens, T W Thompson, R W Turner and Tom Wood.
At this time, Bert, Enid and the boys moved to a new house in Macclesfield where Bert exercised his interest in woodwork, largely by furnishing the place himself - tables, book-cases, cabinets, chairs, stools, even fitted kitchen units appeared regularly, together with the accompanying smell of glue, wood-shavings and varnish.
In 1966, ICI asked Bert to become the first manager of the newly-formed Process Development Department, based at the new laboratories in Macclesfield. Here, he did not invent new compounds but sought methods to scale up laboratory synthesis to factory-scale. His main successes here were with prostaglandins and 'Tenormin', this latter proving to be a very difficult scale-up to develop. Among colleagues with whom he worked here were Mike Evans, Alastair Wylie and Ray Bowie.
In recognition of his pioneering work in the invention and development of beta-blockers, Bert received an award from the Society for Drug Research in 1989. It was here that he presented his paper(1) 'The Discovery of the First Beta-Adrenergic Blocking Agents', a very readable distillation of the story of the invention of 'Inderal'.
Bert retired in 1979: He had shortly before taken up painting, first by learning techniques in evening classes, then branching out on his own. He never seemed to go anywhere without his painting-kit box (a large wooden object which he had made himself), setting up his easel whenever it got quiet and starting to daub. As a consequence the surface area of the all the paintings he has produced is equal to that of Lake Windermere. He donated paintings to many of his friends and also to the common stairwells of the flats where he and Enid lived after leaving Macclesfield. The management committee of the flats has asked that they remain there as a permanent memorial to him.
Shortly before he retired, Bert and Enid had bought a cottage in Anglesey situated on a hillside overlooking the sea off the north coast and now they had the opportunity to spend half of their time there, walking, painting (pictures and the exterior of the weather-ravaged cottage), and inviting friends to stay with them. The front door was never closed to visitors, and Bert and Enid's generous hospitality was appreciated by all who came to stay with them.
When not in Anglesey, the chances are that they would be motoring somewhere in Europe as their whim took them. He would take a plethora of photographs on these trips and use the pick of them as subjects for new paintings.
More recently, there had been a succession of family tragedies: the loss of his grandson, Jimmy, his son, Michael, and Enid's illness requiring her to reside permanently in a care home. He had to learn to look after himself for the first time in his life, managing very well until only a few months ago, when he moved into the same care home where Enid lives. It is good that they were together again during his final months.
Bert was universally regarded as a scholar and a gentleman by those he encountered irrespective of their walk of life and will be sadly missed by his many friends and colleagues.
He died on the 28th October, 2006 following a hip replacement operation. He is survived by his wife, Enid, two sons and five granddaughters.
Crowther, A. F., (1990). The Discovery of the First Beta-Adrenergic Blocking Agents, Drug Design and Delivery, 6, 149-156.