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Obituary: David Wynn-Williams
The London Times
March 27th, 2002
Biologist who studied the life of the hardy polar microbe and from it evolved
theories of life on Mars.
A microbiologist who had for 25 years studied the survival of primitive
organisms in the Antarctic environment and the implications for the wider
universe, David Wynn-Williams, had been using his findings to assess the
likelihood of the existence of some form of life on Mars. These studies,
which had led to an exchange of ideas with Nasa in the US, explored the
behaviour of life forms on the frontiers of existence.
In the course of a series of ten visits to Antarctica from the mid-1970s onwards,
Wynn-Williams had assessed the capability of microbes to adapt to
environmental extremes, including the bombardment of ultraviolet rays and
global warming conditions which might parallel those of the early Primary Era
of Earth s existence, or of present day Mars. Besides his links with Nasa, he
had also collaborated with the Italian Antarctic programme at Terra Nova Bay,
with the New Zealand programme at Scott Base and with American research
programmes in the Antarctic at McMurdo.
A man of boundless physical as well as intellectual energy, Wynn-Williams
generated a constant flow of ideas, which entranced both his contemporaries
and the young. He was killed in a road accident while out jogging near his
David Wynn-Williams was born in Cheshire in 1946 and educated at Calday
Grange Grammar School and Birkenhead Technical College. From the latter he
went, in 1965, to the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, where he read
botany and microbiology, graduating BSc in 1968. He stayed at Aberystwyth for
a further three years, being awarded his PhD for a thesis on environmental
biology in 1971.
Wynn-Williams was a talented science teacher who loved imparting ideas to the
young. For the next two years he taught school biology, first in South London
and then at the Judd School, Tonbridge. When he subsequently moved to
Cambridge and into higher research and farflung fieldwork, he nevertheless
continued to revel in talking directly to classroom students about the
excitement of developing scientific ideas.
He had first become interested in the polar regions after leading the
University College of Wales expedition to Iceland in 1970. In 1974 he was
invited to join the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge and spent the next
two winters and three summers at Signy Island in the South Orkneys, studying
This became the central study of his life and he was to return on four
separate occasions: 1980-81, 1984-85, 1987-88 and 1990-91, to continue
research at Antarctic lithosol sites those whose soil is composed of wholly
or partly weathered rock fragments. In the meantime he was, in 1982-83, guest
scientist with the New Zealand Antarctic Research Programme. Ten years later,
he was appointed leader of the British Antarctic Survey Expedition to the
Mars Glacier lithosol sites, on Alexander Island in West Antarctica.
After a year, 1993, as section head of terrestrial biology in BAS s
Terrestrial and Freshwater Life Sciences Division, Wynn-Williams went in 1995
as co-leader of an international expedition which worked in the McMurdo Dry
Valleys and Terra Nova Bay. He was later involved in two separate expeditions
to oversee the development of an Antarctic desert research site at Mars
In 2000 he was appointed leader of the Antarctic Astrobiology Project, which
explores the effects of environmental stress at the limits of life on Earth
analogous to conditions which might subsist on Mars. This drew Wynn-Williams
into collaboration with the Nasa Ames Research Centre, the Johnson Space
Centre and Lunar & Planetary Institute, Houston, and Montana State
University, to develop and evaluate a miniature confocal microscope and Raman
spectrometer (CMaRS) for use on a Mars landing vehicle. CMaRS has been
adopted as the prime instrument for the proposed UK-led Vanguard Mars
lander-rover mission, to be submitted to the European Space Agency.
Wynn-Williams had also worked with the German Aerospace Institute at Cologne,
on the UVC (short-wave ultra-violet radiation in the 200-280 nanometre
waveband) atmosphere of early Earth and Mars. Last year he returned to the
Taylor Valley long-term ecological research site in the McMurdo Dry Valleys,
where he worked with colleagues on the American Antarctic programme.
His publications were numerous and covered subjects as diverse as recent
aqueous environments in Martian impact craters, the need for collaboration in
astrobiology, and lichens at the limits of life. His pioneering work had been
acknowledged with the award of a Polar Medal as early as 1980.
In spite of the amount of time he spent in the Antarctic wastes,
Wynn-Williams found time to be active in schools in Cambridge at a number of
levels. He loved nothing better than to talk to the young about science
whenever he could, and was chairman of the Chesterton College Parent-Teacher
Outside this he loved marathon running and choral singing, his Welsh ancestry
having endowed him with a fine voice. Among the choruses in which he sang was
the Cambridge Philharmonic Choir.
David Wynn-Williams is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, an artist, and by
their two daughters.
David Wynn-Williams, microbiologist, was born on July 16,1946. He died on
March 24, 2002, aged 55.
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