Professor Willie Russell was a remarkable and outstanding man, self-effacing and humble, despite his lauded contributions to science, politics and to the Boys Brigade. He was born into a working-class background living in a tenement block in Glasgow, with a room and kitchen, sharing an outside toilet.
His father died when he was seven years old and his mother, suddenly widowed with no income, had to find work to support them both. She started out as a cleaner at the Kelvingrove Museum and ended up being in charge of the publications desk. Her own passion for knowledge and education was passed onto her son, whom she recognised as being a bright lad, and he gained a scholarship to attend Allan Glen's School in Glasgow. From there he went on to graduate with a degree and PhD in organic chemistry from Glasgow University.
In 1959, after two years national service as a chemist working in Royal Ordnance factories, followed by two years in the research laboratories of J&P Coats Ltd in Paisley, he made a return to academia and took the bold step in changing fields from chemistry to the expanding discipline of virology. Joining the newly formed Medical Research Council and the University of Glasgow's Experimental Virus Research Unit, he used electron microscopy to investigate the structure of herpesviruses and showed that its genetic information was DNA, rather than RNA, as had been previously thought.
He married our mother, Dorothy (nee Brown) in 1962, who was a medic, having met each other in church whilst students at Glasgow University. In 1963 they moved to Canada, where he took a position in the Ontario Cancer Unit in Toronto, and in 1964 moved to London where he became the first non-medical researcher in the Division of Bacteriology and Virology at the National Institute for Medical Research.
My brother and I appeared during this period, our father juggling being a wholly hands-on father with his research work and Boys Brigade commitments. He liked to cook, and his undisputed sweet tooth resulted in there always being Scotch pancakes or scones for tea on a Sunday, plus rather daring experiments (which he attributed to being a curious scientist) involving delicious (ahead of its time) pasta dishes, and a bbq spare rib sauce that had the house rockin'
due to the tangy aromas. He was also fabulous at children's parties – ours were undoubtedly the best on offer, with daft games, memory contests and an abundance of naughty sweet things. His was a genuine love of, and identification with, younger people
– already tried and tested within the Boys Brigade – and his skill was that he could maintain playfulness at the same as discipline.
He joined the 227th Glasgow Boys Brigade company in 1942 which was known for its fine brass band. There, he learned to play the cornet, then the tenor horn and finally, the euphonium. It was somehow inevitable that he should become an officer in the company, then band officer and thereafter company captain. Over a span of 40 years, he served the Boys Brigade movement, at local, battalion, and national level. The movement gave him his lifelong love of music and his interest in public service. It also laid the foundations of an inquiring and practical Christian faith that was to prove such an influence on young men for years to come.
As children, it was difficult to fully appreciate the scientific work our father was doing, and how significant the discoveries. We knew that he became interested in a wide range of topics – all of them incomprehensible to a non-scientist. In 1977 he became editor of the Journal of General Virology, the same year in which he was appointed head of the Virology Division, which he served until 1982.
That same year our mother Dorothy died, following a subarachnoid haemorrhage. She was working as a GP in Edgware at the time and her premature departure at the age of 49 shocked everyone who knew the family, and had an impact on myself and my brother who, at ages 16 and 14, witnessed her death. Within the same period of time both grandmothers also died, leaving a gaping void. It was not an easy period in our lives and our father, uncomplainingly, coped with the painful aftermath of three deaths in a row.
However, looking forward, and always positively, he sought an opportunity to make a fresh start and to go back home to Scotland. He applied for, and was appointed, chair of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of St Andrews, in which he established the Virology Unit that continues to thrive to this day. Always a man of vision, he handpicked scientists from London who were colleagues he knew he could trust to work together successfully as a team.
As well as continuing his own research, he also mentored many PhD students who went on to have successful careers in science. A colleague said: 'He cared about the quality and standard of the teaching to our undergraduates. To that end, however busy he was, he insisted on playing his part in our teaching programmes. No one could have wished for a more helpful, kind and approachable boss.'
From his youth my father was a committed Christian socialist, but it was not until he was living in London that he joined the Labour party. He was active in the Hendon North constituency party, standing for Barnet Council and being nominated by the Labour party as a school governor. He was also a keen supporter of the campaign for the advancement of state education.
After his move back to Scotland he was twice chair of North East Fife constituency Labour party, rescuing it from the brink of extinction in time to fight a vigorous campaign in the 1992 general election. A dedicated internationalist, my father was also chair of the Mid Scotland and Fife European constituency Labour party, where one of his colleagues recalls his skill at holding together a disparate body: 'He was authoritative and gentle in dealing with individuals – but he was in charge!' He persuaded people to act in concert by his example, by reasoned argument, and by the love and respect inspired by his transparent honesty.
In the 1990s his energy and leadership were of critical importance in founding Scientists for Labour. He was the organisation's first chair, holding the post until 2010, which involved him in repeated journeys to London, which enabled me to catch-up with him. His wisdom and common sense, and the wide respect in which he was held within both the scientific community and the Labour party, were invaluable as Scientists for Labour struggled ('sometimes successfully,' as a colleague recalls) to educate the Labour party about the importance of science.
He lobbied for adequate funding for scientific research and education, encouraged fellow-scientists to contribute their specialist expertise, and was particularly determined and courageous in his demand that policies in highly contentious areas such as nuclear power and animal experimentation should be based on scientific evidence. Gordon Brown recently said of him: 'I know the incredible work he did to promote science and also progressive causes. As an academic and as a humanitarian, I was always in debt to him for the way that he supported forward-looking policies that had always, at their centre, a better future for our country and the world generally.'
When he retired in 1995 he became emeritus professor, and continued to develop his many research interests. He moved to Crail, where he lived with his second wife until last year, and where he was an enthusiastic participant in church and festival activities. He joined the bowling club and was its president for two years, while retaining his membership of the St Andrews
Chorus which he enjoyed so much.
A particularly vicious attack of shingles in his right eye (he himself remarked on the irony of his being felled by a virus, having worked with them all his life), followed by some inexplicable falls, left him weakened and growing in fragility. He was lovingly attended to by my brother Iain, myself, and our step-sister Maggie. Despite his general frailty, his spirit of positivity and of
generosity was an inspiration to those of us who were close to him. Oft said expressions were 'Dinny worry about me,' illustrating his desire never to be a burden to anyone, and 'I'm making progress,' even when, latterly, he clearly wasn't.
A close friend, who is a poet, described him beautifully three months ago as 'looking chirpy and bright-eyed, like a human robin.' This describes the essence of the man who was so well loved and respected by many, perfectly allied to the giant footprint of achievement, example and goodness that remain an inspiration to all whose lives were touched by his. He died peacefully in his sleep on 31 October at the age of 88, with my brother by his side.
Photo of Willie Russell by the author