Professor Richard Nelson Perham ScD FRS FMedSci, 1937–2015

Richard was an inspirational biochemist who had a passion for multidisciplinary science before it became the norm

This article is from our archives and was originally published in The Eagle in 2015. Written by Professor Alan Berry, Professor Sheena E. Radford, and Professor Nigel S. Scrutton, we are sharing it today - 27 April 2019 - on Professor Richard Perham's birthday in honour of his contributions to St John's and the wider scientific community. 

Professor Richard Perham FRS, former Master of St John's College, passed away on 14 February 2015, aged 77.

It is a privilege to write this obituary for Professor Richard Perham. Many of you reading this will know of Richard in the many roles he held with St John’s College in fifty-seven years of dedication to the cause and well-being of the College, and we have all lost a friend and colleague.

Those of us who worked academically with Richard will also miss him as an inspirational biochemist who had a passion for multidisciplinary science before it became the norm; as a shining example for those of us now running our own research groups; and as an inspired teacher and mentor. Richard was fond of reminding us that we ‘worked with him and not for him’, and that ethos underlay the whole philosophy of his laboratory and helped our learning process.


Richard was distinguished for his work on the chemistry of proteins and the assembly of giant protein complexes, and was a leader in bringing the power of protein engineering approaches to problems of protein structure and function. He pioneered the development of chemical tools to understand protein structure and function, revealing how enzymes are able to generate energy from glucose (via the remarkable, massive, 2-oxoacid dehydrogenase multi-enzyme complexes) and how viruses assemble their capsid coats.

Richard Perham

Photo credit: Yvonne Burt

Richard always said that he ‘found inspiration walking down the streets of Cambridge that Newton and Darwin walked down'

Richard was also a pioneer of the important, and hugely topical, area of protein engineering and its use in understanding the fundamental principles of protein structure and function and in altering the functioning of enzymes. He also made outstanding contributions to our knowledge of the structure and assembly of filamentous bacteriophages, and was amongst the first to use these phages to display foreign peptides on their surface, opening the door to their use for the production of novel vaccines.

Richard always said that he ‘found inspiration walking down the streets of Cambridge that Newton and Darwin walked down, in this place where so much has happened’. Richard’s own lectures on his research were, in turn, stunning, and he inspired many to get involved in this area of research. He would delight audiences with his descriptions of multi-enzyme complexes and how they worked, using entertaining and real-world analogies to communicate his ideas (e.g. the ‘hot potato’ hypothesis for ‘handing over’ reaction intermediates). What came through was a strong passion for his science, a tenacity and long-term commitment to his work, a charm and charisma that captivated his audience, and a deep respect for the contributions made by collaborators, students and ‘competitors’ alike.

The recognition Richard received for his achievements is equally outstanding, including election as a Member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (1983) and the Academia Europaea (1992), and as a Fellow of the Royal Society (1984) and the Academy of Medical Sciences (2005). He was awarded the Max Planck Prize (1993), the Novartis Medal of the Biochemical Society (1998) and the Diplôme d'Honneur from the Federation of European Biochemical Societies (2011).

Richard Perham in 1969

Richard Perham in 1969

Before coming up to St John’s, Richard undertook his national service in the Royal Navy in signals and cryptography during the Suez operation

Richard was born on 27 April 1937 in Hounslow West, Middlesex. He went to Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, having secured a scholarship. Richard thought Latymer was ‘a kind of intellectual heaven, with able boys as colleagues and an array of teachers of outstanding ability, many having recently returned from war service and all dedicated to the education of the young in the broadest possible way’. The school’s liberal outlook and broad curriculum, including the arts and sport (both of which remained passions of his for life), inspired and nurtured the budding scientist.

Richard’s experience at Latymer founded his strong belief in the importance and value of education for all, irrespective of background and wealth. Richard remained a loyal devotee of Latymer School, first by election as Governor of the Latymer Foundation in 1991 and then as Chairman of Governors from 2005 until 2010.

Having completed A levels in Pure and Applied Maths, Physics and Chemistry in 1955, Richard was encouraged by Latymer to sit the examination for entry to Cambridge. The first of his family to go to university, Richard applied for, and was offered a place at, St John’s College. Richard had learned to row at Latymer, and the Lady Margaret Boat Club was therefore an added incentive. The LMBC allowed Richard to maintain his love of this sport and row for the College, and he was ultimately proud to be awarded his First May Colours when he was President of the LMBC and Master of the College.

Richard Perham in a team photo

The Fellows' Boat of 1970, with Richard sitting far left on the centre row

In the 1950s the field of biochemistry was a hothouse of discovery and achievement: the structure of DNA had been solved in 195

Before coming up to St John’s, Richard undertook his national service in the Royal Navy in signals and cryptography, partly in the Daring-class destroyer HMS Defender, during the Suez operations. Richard thought that national service had been good for him. It widened his knowledge of the world, taught him self-sufficiency, helped him to get on with people from any walk of life and illustrated the importance of working together. Those of you who visited Richard’s office will remember a photo of Defender sharing pride of place on his desk with a photo of his wife, Nancy.

After this deferment, Richard joined St John’s, firstly as an undergraduate in Natural Sciences (1958), and then as postgraduate (1961), Fellow (1964), President (1983–7) and ultimately Master (2004–7). Richard also served for a number of years on the May Ball Committee. On coming to St John’s, Richard’s first inclination was to specialise in physics or chemistry, but his tutor, the Revd Alan Welford (a Lecturer in Experimental Psychology), told him that he could hardly call himself a scientist if he knew no biology, and advised him to try physiology or biochemistry.

One taste of the latter and Richard was hooked. In the 1950s the field of biochemistry was a hothouse of discovery and achievement: the structure of DNA had been solved in 1953; the first sequence of a protein (insulin) in 1955; and the first three-dimensional structure of a protein (myoglobin/haemoglobin) in 1956. A whole new world was opening up and Richard was inspired to join this exciting and burgeoning field. A PhD with the future double Nobel laureate, Dr Fred Sanger, at the then newly formed Laboratory of Molecular Biology, was his next step.

Richard worked on the structure and mechanism of glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase under the immediate supervision of Dr J. Ieuan Harris. Together Richard and Ieuan identified a key cysteine residue required for protein activity, and went on to hold the world record in the mid-1960s for determining the longest amino acid sequence of a protein: over 330 residues. This work merited Richard’s first major article in Nature, which was published in 1968.

Richard Perham in the laboratory

Inspecting a DNA sequencing gel in the mid-1980s

Richard’s scientific achievements were juxtaposed with his strong commitment to serving the scientific community

In 1965 Richard was appointed Demonstrator in the University’s Department of Biochemistry and, at the same time, was awarded a Helen Hay Whitney Fellowship to study at Yale University with Professor Fred Richards in the Department of Molecular Biophysics. There he met (over a shared electron microscope) the young and gifted biologist, Dr Nancy Lane, later to become his wife. Nancy and Richard returned to Cambridge, married in Halifax Nova Scotia in December 1969 and had two children, Temple and Quentin.

Richard’s scientific achievements were juxtaposed with his strong commitment to serving the scientific community, not only as a senior academic at the University of Cambridge, but also in his membership of the Executive Council and as Trustee of the Novartis (formerly CIBA) Foundation; as Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine; and on the Scientific Advisory Committee and as Vice-President of the Fondation Louis-Jeantet de Médicine in Geneva. Richard also took over as Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of Biochemistry in 1998, revolutionising the journal into what is now the FEBS Journal and remaining at the helm until 2013.

Within Cambridge, Richard served as Head of the Department of Biochemistry from 1985 to 1996, hiring and inspiring the next generation of researchers, and as Founding Chairman of the Cambridge Centre for Molecular Recognition, 1988–93. He was always engaging and had a wide vision in structural molecular biology, and it was during his tenure that the Department acquired its first high field NMR spectrometers, under Professor (then Dr) Ernest Laue.

Richard’s laboratory at the time was based in the Sir William Hardy Building and was a far cry from today’s modern, air-conditioned laboratories, but he had a vision of uniting the various sections of Biochemistry, then spread over four different buildings. He led the fundraising efforts to enable the new Biochemistry building to be built, and was proud when it opened in 1997.

May Ball Committee

The May Ball Committee of 1969

Richard was a truly exceptional scientist but he was also an inspired teacher and mentor, who was loyal to his students

Richard made lifelong friends with all he met, and he made lasting collaborations nationally and internationally with many, including Dr Ettore Appella, National Institutes of Health, which began in 1966 and resulted in more than a dozen papers together, on immunoglobulins, the chemical modification of proteins, peptide synthesis, and peptide recognition in the immune response; as well as significant other papers with Wim Hol (Washington) and John Guest (Sheffield).

In 2004, at a symposium arranged to mark Richard’s retirement, more than a hundred of his friends, colleagues and ex-group members congregated in Cambridge to celebrate with him the end of an era. But Richard’s passion for biochemistry continued and he kept working, most recently in writing and preparing a new textbook on molecular machines with the late Dame Louise Johnson FRS (Oxford), who he had met as a postdoc in Yale, Professor Wolfgang Baumeister (Martinsried, Germany) and Professor Alasdair Steven (NIH Bethesda). He was greatly looking forward to seeing this mammoth effort in print.

Richard was a truly exceptional scientist with an impressive knowledge of art, literature, history, sport and all types of music, but he was also an inspired teacher and mentor, who was loyal to his students. We well remember the annual lab punt trips up to Grantchester, followed by barbecues at Barton Road with Richard and Nancy, and various lab Christmas parties where Richard led the festive carol singing while trying to keep his remarkably tuneless group in tune by playing the piano.

A lasting memory is Richard’s great passion for making science accessible to all, irrespective of gender or nationality, and based only on ability. Richard indeed was a keen supporter of Women in Science and did all he could to promote women both in the department and the College. Richard leaves a legacy of more than 350 scientific papers, an array of well-trained graduate biochemists, and family, friends and the scientific community proud of such a brilliant man.

We must surely leave the last words to Richard, to encourage all of us ex-group members and all Johnians: ‘Onwards and upwards!’

Perham and Dobson

Professor Perham with Professor Sir Christopher Dobson, current Master of St John's. Photo credit: Andrew Houston

Parts of this piece first appeared in an obituary for Professor Perham in The Biochemist, the members’ magazine of The Biochemical Society, and are reproduced here with the magazine’s permission.

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