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Professor John Frederick Peberdy 8th November 1937 – 14th May 2020

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JFP1 John Peberdy pic.jpgIt is with great sadness that we report the death of John Peberdy.

John passed away peacefully at home on 14th May 2020 with his wife Jennie beside him; he had been battling cancer for some time. John was a long serving member of the British Mycological Society which he served in many ways, notably as President from 1984-1985 as well as Programme Secretary during the 1980s, and then as Meetings Manager for the annual BMS meetings in the first decade of the 2000s. He was instrumental in modernising the BMS, bringing in a more business-focussed approach and instigating changes such as the renaming of ‘The Transactions of the British Mycological Society’ to ‘Mycological Research’. Over several years he also transformed the main BMS meetings into ones of international interest and significance. He liaised with the Royal Society to obtain support for internationally acclaimed keynote speakers and greatly increased BMS standing overseas. As time has proved these were both very successful ventures and helped the BMS become truly international. As President, John attended the Spring and Autumn forays and certainly surprised the field mycologists with his knowledge of fungi and especially plants! 

As well as his impact on the BMS, John had a tremendous influence firstly on the international fungal scientific community, secondly on other aspects of UK science, and thirdly as a supervisor to undergraduate and postgraduate students and postdocs, as will be described below.

John was born in Skegness in 1937 and grew up in the Hucknall area of Nottingham as a ‘working class’ boy who studied hard and succeeded in gaining entrance to grammar school. This later allowed him to gain a place to study Botany at King’s College, Newcastle (then part of Durham University), and it was during his degree that he became fascinated with microbiology, and with fungi in particular. John then moved to the University of Nottingham to study for a PhD under Professor Charles Chesters. He had aspirations to become a plant pathologist, but his supervisor deemed him “better suited” to a PhD in fungal biochemistry, to which John readily adapted and soon became very happy in this research area as he saw great applied prospects. This was to be fulfilled in his later career as John developed an immense interest in the practical applications of mycology, particularly in the commercialisation of biotechnology. Following his PhD, John worked briefly in industry as a Scientific Officer at a Water Pollution Research Laboratory in Stevenage before returning to academia, first in a lecturing position at Hull College of Technology before moving back to the University of Nottingham for a Lectureship in Microbiology in 1966. He then spent the rest of his career at Nottingham where he was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1977, Reader in 1980 and then a Chair in Botany in 1984. For most of his time at the University he was based in Life Sciences Departments, where he was Head of School from 1996-1998, but from 2004 until his final retirement in 2015 he became an Emeritus Professor of Biotechnology and Enterprise in the University Business School, where he taught courses and helped with admissions part time.

John had a major impact on the international fungal scientific community through his pioneering work in fungal biochemistry and genetics. In particular, he pioneered research into fungal protoplasts and their exploitation, and he ran one of the first laboratories to achieve fungal transformation. He also researched into the genetics of fungal secondary metabolite production, antifungal agents, plant pathogens, edible mushrooms, and the biotechnology of exploitation by fungi of waste resources. He published over 190 scientific papers during his career and developed collaborations in Europe, Asia (Thailand in particular) and the Americas and travelled extensively, including sabbatical trips to Belgium and Hong Kong. He was awarded an honorary DSc. from the University of Szeged in Hungary. Notably, John was instrumental in setting up the ‘European Conference of Fungal Genetics’ series of meetings and was the lead host of the very first ECFG1 at Nottingham in 1992. The conference has run biennially since then with around 600-700 participants, which is a wonderful legacy. John also helped as a co-organiser of ECFG9 in Edinburgh in 2008.

John also made major contributions to UK science. As well as his roles in the BMS, John was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology (formerly the Institute of Biology), where he sat on Council during the 1980s and chaired the East Midlands Branch. He also sat on the Council of the Microbiology Society (then the Society for General Microbiology).  Particularly noteworthy was that in the 1990s John was the founder of both a small biotechnology company and a national UK biotechnology competition in which University students from throughout the UK competed by proposing ideas for new biotechnology companies. The 'Biotechnology Young Entrepreneurs Scheme (Biotechnology YES)' proved very successful over many years, and in 2000 John was awarded an MBE for his services to student entrepreneurship.

John had a tremendous impact on the lives of the at least 60 PhD and Masters students and postdocs that he supervised, as well as numerous undergraduate students that he taught at the University of Nottingham. It is no exaggeration to say this has been life changing for many, as through working with John he propelled them on the way to new careers with many now in senior roles themselves. Indeed, to thank John two of his former PhD students recently published a scientific paper reporting the discovery of a new fungal species growing on onion and garlic crops in Brazil which they named Trichoderma peberdyi in John’s honour as thanks (see: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0228485). So if you see some green mould on your onions, you can think of John and what he achieved!

Finally, we will end with a few personal stories to illustrate different sides of John. He was very driven and expected those working under him to work hard and do their best. This was not because John was a hard taskmaster, but rather he really cared and wanted people to fulfil their potential. Successive generations of students have commented that John always found an excuse to come round the lab at 6 pm on Fridays to check who was working, so students always made sure to be present! He also seemed to enjoy the pressure of work. On return from his sabbatical year in Hong Kong he complained that he missed the adrenaline rush and stress of having to fight on the crowded subway stations to get onto the trains, perhaps not for all of us. On the other side John took great pleasure in seeing his collaborators and students happy and enjoying themselves, which is perhaps why he enjoyed organising conferences and the associated dinners so much. Indeed, he helped instigate annual summer lab walks to help group bonding and to show overseas students the delights of the Derbyshire Peak District.  John also had outside interests, particulary in gardening and in trains and the rail industry, even cycling from Nottingham to Grantham and back for trainspotting in his youth. He also had an excellent knowledge of fine wines and food, perhaps associated with his wife Jennies’s skills in the kitchen.

John is survived by his wife Jennie and daughter Caroline. John’s passions for microbiology and for training young researchers and entrepreneurs to apply their scientific and technical knowledge to real-life problems continue to be inspirational and he will be greatly missed by family, colleagues and former students alike. To quote a number of them, it is truly ‘the end of an era’.

Paul S. Dyer (University of Nottingham, UK)

Rosie E. Bradshaw (Massey University, New Zealand)

Tony J.S. Whalley (Liverpool John Moores University, UK).