Adam Curtis

Biography of Adam Curtis

Adam Curtis
Adam Curtis

Adam Curtis was Emeritus Professor of Cell Biology. He retired in 2004 after 37 years as Professor of Cell Biology at the University.

Adam S G Curtis who died aged 83 (3.1.1934 – 8.8.2017) was a scientist, diver gardener, microscopist, husband, artist, ‘Querdenker’, father, and friend. Coming from an artistic background he became interested in science during a rainy holiday, where a bored neighbour, at a table next to his, started educating him in chemistry. After studying in Cambridge he moved to Edinburgh where he did a PhD on the “Biophysics of Development” and met his future wife Ann.

In his postdoc in London he worked with Michael Abercrombie developing a novel microscopy technique, interference reflection microscopy, that allowed one to measure the distance between a cell and the surface it adhered to. He was also a pioneer in applying stringent morphometric analysis to cell biology. In 1962 he became a Lecturer in Zoology at University College London and in 1967 he moved to Glasgow to become the first Professor of Cell Biology in the UK. By this time he and Ann had two daughters Penelope and Susanna.

In Glasgow he continued to investigate the mechanisms and physical underpinnings of cells’ adhesion to each other and to materials. Working with sponges that he sourced on his diving expeditions to the local reefs in the West of Scotland, he continued to study how cell –cell adhesion is controlled and how it is involved in morphogenesis. The biochemical and physical mechanisms and underpinnings of cells’ adhesion to each other and to materials continued to fascinate him. Shortly after his appointment he created an Honours course for Cell Biology, where he taught lively practical classes and lectured in his irreverent style. He was always exceedingly generous with his time where students were concerned, particularly at reading parties, one of his enthusiasms, and held, appropriately enough at the Marine Biology station in Millport.

Always a keen gardener he had an allotment where he got talking to Chris Wilkinson, another keen gardener and Professor of Electronic Engineering at Glasgow. This started their joint exploits in bioengineering, a highly productive time under BP ‘blue skies’ funding, that allowed Adam and Chris to assemble a team of young scientists. Their first collaborative work was on designing electronic interfaces to ‘talk to nerve cells’, a theme that would continue to occupy their joint work for decades to come. Another area of common interest was to apply the engineer’s ability to control surface structure at the micrometer and the nanometer level to biology. Adam was keen to use devices made with these techniques to investigate contact guidance, how cells respond to material topography, and use these to instruct cells to ‘do the right thing’. Together they founded the Centre for Cell Engineering in 1997, as a collaborative centre cutting across Engineering, Chemistry and Biology with members from both Strathclyde and Glasgow Universities.

As part of several parallel and successive international grant consortia he built his reputation in bioengineering, tissue engineering and nanobiomaterials, attracting a string of talented researchers to Glasgow. All this was very much helped by the parties that Adam and Ann hosted when project meetings were in Glasgow, or to welcome new people and last but not least the celebrations they held for the Cell Biology Honours students after exams.

After becoming Professor Emeritus in 2004 Adam did not give up science–reading a paper on how cells ‘tiptoe’ around when they first adhere to a surface. He came up with and established the proof of concept for nanokicking, a unique concept where a surface is subtly jiggled to instruct stem cells to differentiate into bone.

At the University of Glasgow Adam served as Head of Department, Head of Division, and Director of the Centre for Cell Engineering. He was particularly active on the University Library Committee.

Always a very dynamic member of scientific societies, he served on Cell Section and was President of the Society for Experimental Biology 1993-1995; as one of the founding fathers of the Tissue and Cell Engineering Society UK he was its president 2001-2003. Adam’s work has been recognised nationally and internationally with several prizes including the Cuvier Medal of the Zoological Society of France in 1972, the President’s Medal from the UK Society for Biomaterials, the Chapman Memorial Medal, IMMM, 2008. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Society of Biology, and of Biomaterials Science and Engineering (World Biomaterials Society).

Outside the University Adam was a very active member of the Scottish Sub Aqua Club, heading out to the lochs whenever he could, mostly on the West Coast, and in his late 60s starting to use a rebreather. Unfortunately, on a dive in the Mediterranean in 2001, he brushed against a fish, got stung, and acquired a recurrent bacterial infection. His other hobby was his garden and allotment, where he grew rare plants, food and thought.

As a supervisor Adam was generous, critical and inspiring. He gave guidance and a lot of freedom to develop, fostering people’s ideas and supporting their progress wherever he could, irrespective of origin or gender. His many scientific offspring in tenure track position across the world, from Japan and Canada to the UK and Glasgow, are a credit to his style and leadership. It is notable that he was a very merit-based scientist, not interested in hierarchy, but able to relate to all and support hard work and talent from whomever it came. As a scientist he was always interested in the latest developments, and being an original thinker, he pioneered several fields, such as quantitive biophysical measurements on individual cells, bioengineering of interfaces, and nanobiotechnology among others.

Attending many meetings on cell and developmental biology, biomaterials or nanoscience Adam had the amazing capabilities to listen deeply to talks and lectures whilst obviously fast asleep; this often utterly surprised the speakers who did not reckon with a very pointed and always appropriate question from his corner.

Adam the scientist can not be separated from Adam the person who was generous, and kind, always interested and at times utterly charming. Adam and Ann often entertained, and an invitation for dinner was to look forward to an evening with excellent food (with produce from the allotment), superb wines, and an entertaining chat about current and sometimes arcane topics.

Adam is survived by Ann, Penelope and Susanna, and two grandchildren.

With thanks to his daughter Susanna Curtis for the above biography and photographs.


Adam Curtis
Cell Biologist

Born 3 January 1934.
Died 8 August 2017.
University Link: Professor
GU Degree:
Occupation categories: cell biologists; zoologists
Search for this person in UK Who's Who
Record last updated: 17th Aug 2017

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