Dr John Philip Day, Reader in Chemistry at Manchester University, who died of cancer on November 26th 2009 at the age of 72, was an authority and pioneer in the field of environmental chemistry. His wide-ranging and influential research included work on the dangers of lead in petrol, the role of aluminium in drinking water (which has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease), and the impact of man-made radioactivity, such as that released from Windscale and Chernobyl.
Philip Day was an exceptionally able scientist who combined enthusiasm, wit and a great depth of knowledge, with both courtesy and modesty. He had no time for pretension, grandeur or ostentation, nor for the shallow or the pompous. He admired people who did practical useful things, knew what they were doing and got on with it. He preferred experiment to theory as the final arbiter, and was at his happiest getting his hands dirty. He was admired by students as an inspirational teacher and mentor, and respected by his colleagues for his erudition, his principled intellectual independence, and for his originality, good humour and sound sense.
Philip Day was born in 1937. His father was a Norfolk schoolmaster and his mother hailed from Guernsey. Philip was the eldest of three brothers – all of them accomplished. Nick, a leading epidemiologist, is a Fellow of the Royal Society, while Chris is a former deputy Bailiff for the Bailiwick of Guernsey – effectively a judge in its Royal Court. All three were students at Magdalen College, Oxford where Philip gained a 1st Class Degree in Chemistry in 1962 and a doctorate in 1964. After two years in which he tried out a career as a school teacher, Phil took up a postdoctoral research post in Evanston, Illinois, and it was there that he met and married his American wife, Jean.
Academic chemists are usually impressed by the synthesis of new chemical compounds and by clever, often expensive, experiments that reveal how chemistry actually works. Such things generate the plaudits, the medals and the research funding that fuel the career of the ambitious scientist and gain the approval of university administrators. Philip had already demonstrated his ability in this kind of work, and reported it in highly-cited publications, when he was appointed to a Lectureship in Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Manchester in 1968, where he was to become a Reader in 1989. Before long, however, he began to apply his skills to important environmental questions, attracted - one suspects - by their more direct relevance to ordinary people.
This was a principled and brave decision. As a discipline, environmental chemistry was at an early stage in its development. Superficially the subject could appear prosaic and unfashionable to mainstream academics, so that peer-reviewed Government research funding was hard to come by. Moreover the findings could be politically embarrassing, particularly if a source of pollution arose from a Government facility. Undeterred, Philip managed to maintain a research programme of a quality and productivity that many academics would envy, almost entirely without grants from UK Research Council funds, other than that needed for the living expenses of research students. For the most part he relied on modest resources from Manchester University, made some of his own equipment, arranged collaborations with medical colleagues, and obtained help from medical charities. In such circumstances the supervision of the research theses of 14 masters and 53 doctoral students, was an extraordinary achievement.
In a characteristic improvisation, Philip’s research on environmental radioactivity began when he found that sand brought back from a family holiday on a Cumbrian beach was so radioactive that it would be illegal to send it in a parcel through the Royal Mail. Often cheerfully and deliberately unorthodox, he was invariably original and innovative. His work, always of the highest technical integrity, disproved the view that environmental chemistry was somehow intellectually mundane. His investigations into the impact of Windscale discharges to the Irish Sea brought him widespread academic and political recognition that ranged from a role on the TV documentary Windscale: the Nuclear Laundry, to a high profile scientific paper on the consequences of the discharge of plutonium. He also worked hard, outside university hours, to provide expert advice to the legal team seeking redress for patients (mostly children) suffering from leukaemia. This was used in a number of court cases concerning the Sellafield nuclear site, as well as in separate actions related to contamination at Dounreay, and as a result he often appeared as an expert witness. Aware that his value as an expert and, more importantly, the correct outcome, depended crucially on his objectivity and professional independence, he guarded both these qualities scrupulously, rejecting offers of remuneration or accreditation that might put them at risk.
A few examples indicate the scope of his contributions. Quite early in his time at Manchester he mobilised a group of students to collect 350 samples from all over the city, and was able to show that airborne dust deposited as much lead on school playgrounds and on children’s playareas in parks, as on major roads and streets carrying heavy traffic. With Dr Peter Ackrill at the Withington hospital, he established that kidney patients were being poisoned by aluminium in tap water during dialysis and devised an effective method of removing it from the brain of a victim, whose life was thereby transformed. Later he would develop especially sensitive techniques that were able to clarify the biochemistry of aluminium in the human body.
During his retirement he carried on lecturing at Manchester University and satisfied an ever lively scientific curiosity in a new found hobby of archaeological geophysics. This same curiosity was, in recent years, applied to the technical details of his treatment for cancer – an affliction that he bore with great bravery. Phil once asked what radiotherapy dose he was to receive, and when told responded, "Crikey, that's enough to boil a cup of tea!" - he knew it wasn't, but the medical staff knew no better.
Day was not overtly political, but he possessed a deep sense of responsibility, fairness and equity. He belonged to that strong and worthy tradition of people motivated by public service, as opposed to private gain. His expertise and sound judgement led to his invitation to serve on National Committees charged with setting standards for radiological protection.
Personally Philip Day’s style was considerate and gentle, especially with those who might benefit from his help. Anybody who knew him well can attest to his kindness and generosity. As the lawyer who worked with him on the Sellafield cases pointed out, it is rare for these personal qualities to be found in a person with a razor-sharp brain. However, where matters of principle were at stake or where authority needed to be challenged, he could be forthright and robust in defence of the just and equitable outcome. The photograph accompanying this article, shows the friendly but firm gaze of a man who knew his own mind, knew what was right, and who demonstrated it, time and again, by his conduct.
Philip is survived by his wife Jean, children Stephanie, Jonathan, Andrea, and grandchildren Natasha, Susannah and Arran.