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Professor Harry Nursten 1927 - 2011

Professor Harry Nursten

Professor Harry Nursten

Professor Harry Nursten will be best remembered by his unfailing support of individuals, particularly of younger staff and PhD students

Harry Erwin Nursten, Emeritus Professor of Food Science, died on 20 December 2011 aged 84. He joined the University of Reading on 1 October 1976 as Head of the Department of Food Science and retired on 30 September 1992.

Harry was a remarkable man and an excellent scientist. His commitment to students and loyalty to the department and University was outstanding. His life-long passion for science was such that through his retirement until he was taken ill in the early part of 2011, he could be seen almost every day at his desk in the department or in the library.

His outstanding contribution to Food Science for over fifty years is recognised throughout the world and he was a major force in establishing the importance of food science teaching and research in UK universities. However, he will be remembered with great affection and respect by numerous students world wide for his support and encouragement during their studies, and by colleagues young and old as a friend and mentor.

Harry Nursten was born in Czechoslovakia in August 1927 but, with his family, was fortunate to escape to England shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.

His family settled in Ilkley, Yorkshire, where he attended Ilkley Grammar School and met his future wife Jean playing bridge, ahead of both going to the University of Leeds.

He read Colour Chemistry and Dyeing at university and then undertook a PhD in Colour Chemistry, which was awarded in 1949.

After a period as a Research Fellow at Leeds, he taught dyeing and textile chemistry at Nottingham Technical College before returning to the University of Leeds in 1955 as a lecturer in the Procter Department of Leather Science.

In the early 1960s the Procter Department diversified into food science as a response to the diminishing interest in leather as an academic subject.

This provided Harry with a new challenge and he developed new directions for his research. This was stimulated by two sabbaticals in the USA in the 1960s, first at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a Fulbright Scholarship and, later, at the University of California Davis.

Both had strong food chemistry groups and Harry took the opportunity to move into the newly developing area of flavour chemistry, which would be his major research interest for the rest of his career and become the basis of his worldwide reputation.

The advent of sophisticated analytical methods, such as gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, in the early 1960s, enabled the identification of hitherto unknown compounds that provided foods with their characteristic tastes and flavours.

Harry was at the forefront of this research and his first PhD student in flavour chemistry graduated from the University of Leeds in 1966.

Rightly Harry is regarded as the father of flavour chemistry in the UK. But as a flavour chemist he was not only interested in identifying molecules that contribute to taste and flavour, he wanted to understand how they are formed.

Consequently he became a leading authority on the Maillard reaction, which is responsible for flavour and colour generation in cooked foods. While at Leeds he was awarded a DSC on the basis of his published papers.

In 1976 Harry moved from Leeds to take up the Chair of Food Science at Reading. This was a time of major change as plans were afoot to move the National College of Food Technology from its Weybridge site to the Whiteknights campus, to share a new building with Food Science.

The new food building was completed in 1985. Following the merger of the two departments, Harry became head of the new Department of Food Science and Technology. His leadership over this period was crucial to the smooth transition of two different academic establishments into the biggest and most successful department of its kind in the UK.

His support and interest in the department did not cease on his retirement in 1992 and he played an important role in gaining the Hugh Sinclair endowment for Reading to establish a major new centre for human nutrition research.

His retirement made little difference to the time he spent in the University. When asked about this, Harry said that now he only did the things that he wanted to do. This meant writing papers, attending research seminars, acting as an external examiner, and extending his already vast knowledge of food and related sciences. His advice on research planning and preparation of reports was sought by and freely given to research students and academic staff.

During this time he published his book on the Maillard reaction, which has become the standard text on the subject, and shortly before he was taken ill, he started work on the second edition for the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Harry was an excellent scientist and a remarkable man. Among his distinguishing characteristics in a professional capacity was his great attention to detail and with it a sense of rigour in his science and in the use of the English language. Anyone who asked for his comments on a manuscript or report could not fail to be impressed with the detailed corrections very carefully marked on the script in pencil in his very clear, neat writing.

Indeed the textbooks in his extensive personal library also had pencilled comments and corrections in the margins.

Harry had a good sense of humour and he was very amused by the retirement gift that comprised a box of new pencils and a sharpener. But perhaps he will be best remembered by his unfailing support of individuals, particularly of younger staff and PhD students. There are many whose careers in food science owe much to his example and encouragement. Harry will be greatly missed and remembered with great affection, not only by his friends, colleagues and former students, but also by food scientists throughout the world.

Our deepest sympathy is extended to his wife Jean to whom he was married for over sixty years.

Correction notice: A typographical error was corrected on 6 January 2017. 

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