Food and Behaviour Research

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24 June 2011 - OBITUARY: Professor Derek Bryce-Smith 29.4.1926 to 24.6.2011

By Bernard Gesch - Senior Research Scientist in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, University of Oxford; founder of Natural Justice; member of the FAB Research Scientific and Professional Advisory Board

Derek was one of the most honest people you could hope to meet.  He walked a straight and honourable path.  He had a successful career as a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Reading.

But Derek is perhaps best known for alerting the world to the dangers of tetraethyl lead additives in petrol because he realised that releasing large quantities of lead, a potent and persistent neurotoxin, into our environment posed a danger for mankind. Few people have the resolve to take on the might of the petrochemical industries. I was never sure if he was fearless or more likely that Derek could never hide behind the truth. Derek was also capable of thinking well beyond his own discipline, sometimes to the annoyance of more staid individuals. He had that potent combination of broad interests coupled with an uncanny ability to bring the big picture into clear focus.  

He had become intrigued by 1950’s research he had translated from Russian that showed that for any given neurotoxin (brain poison), the dosage required to affect behaviour was one hundredth of that to affect health. He followed this up and realised that the levels of lead being introduced into the environment from petrol were well into the threshold that could affect human behaviour.  He first attempted to persuade industry and then went public in 1972. His work inspired key researchers and campaigns against lead fuel additives. Over the years the case against lead became overwhelming. So much so that by the early nineties many industrialised countries removed lead from petrol and the majority experienced a fall in violent crime. Naturally, most of the governments wished to attribute this to their various criminal justice policies, yet some of the most impressive epidemiological evidence suggests the reduced violence was most closely associated with the removal of lead from petrol, as Derek had predicted so many years before.

I first met Derek in 1988 when I was running a charity that had begun to use diet as part of a community sentence for persistent juvenile offenders.  The approach had quickly taken off with the courts and I was anxious to find UK experts who could help.  I found an obscure reference to Derek in an intriguing book on diet and delinquency and got in touch.  He could not have been more supportive and quickly became a mentor and friend, lending his name and time to help me improve the programme.  He introduced the charity to influential people who were to become important members of the Board such as The Earl Kitchener and Bishop Montefiore.  Derek had already worked out many of the implications for criminal justice in his award winning John Jeyes Silver Medal Lecture ‘Environmental chemical influences on behaviour, personality, and mentation,’ for the Royal Society of Chemistry.  He predicted that there was a potent stratum of influences that could affect our behaviour without us being aware of it, such as poor nutrition or exposure to lead, which acted in addition to social influences.  In 1991 our charity was rebranded under the name Natural Justice, a national charity to create a platform in criminal justice policy and practice for these factors that influenced brain function and hence behaviour directly. It was the start of another long battle for Derek but in 2002, with the generous help of many more eminent scientists, we produced the first widely accepted empirical evidence that enhanced nutrition caused prisoners to commit significantly fewer offences compared to those taking placebo nutritional supplements.  

Derek was a private man, devoted to his family and not one to seek recognition. He was never properly recognised for what he had achieved, while others that stood against him were honoured.  As was typical of him, he was far more concerned that the productions of tetraethyl lead additives continued and were being sold to developing countries instead.  He once told me ruefully that he realised he would eventually be forgiven if he was wrong about lead but he would never be forgiven if he was right.  Yet the world should be grateful for what he did. That farsightedness and resolute honesty in the face of cruel self-interest deserves recognition, even if only now on a posthumous basis. 

Sadly after Derek lost his beloved wife Joy, he began a tragic personal battle of his own with Alzheimer’s disease.  He died peacefully with his family on Friday 24th June 2011 aged 85.  He leaves four children - Madeleine, Duncan, David and Hazel from his first wife Mary; two step-daughters, Diane and Pam, from his second wife Joy, thirteen grandchildren and one great god son, Theo.