Ron Carrington: scientist whose research helped make antibiotics widely available

Dr Thomas Carrington (or R0n as he preferred to be known) passed away on 27 November 2018. The Second World War veteran who served in Palestine went on to distinguish himself as a biochemist dedicated to making penicillin more accessible. His son Nigel writes his father's obituary for The Independent.

Few people who met my father, Ron, after his retirement in 1987 would have had any idea of the focus and ambition that took him from a childhood in an unassuming part of Birmingham to the comfort and security of his comfortable retirement with my mother in Hove. Nor would his modest and quiet humour have given any clue to his extraordinary academic success or career achievements. Those who met him would simply have encountered a civilised, considerate and thoroughly decent gentleman enjoying his quiet retirement with Vera, his wife of 67 years. 

His parents moved to Handsworth for the local grammar school, which he won a place at in 1936. They lived in a house with a weekly rent of £1. When we visited my grandparents as children, I remember their neighbours talking with some awe of the new life that “our Ronnie” had in the world of science and industry – a life attributed by my father to an inspirational science teacher at school who injected him with a passion for science and discovery.  But his progress towards that goal was far from easy.

It was a time of pleasure and discovery. But the harsh realities of Birmingham life were ever present. Their house in Handsworth was partially destroyed in an air raid and my grandfather was severely injured on another occasion during yet another bombing raid when he was patrolling as an air raid warden. 

Things changed for my father in 1943 when he was conscripted into the RAF and sent to a North Wales recruitment centre. His scientific and technical potential was immediately recognised and he was sent to Imperial College in London to train in radar communication. 

When the Doodlebugs came, Albert Hall Mansions was evacuated by the RAF and he was transferred to Cosford, near Wolverhampton, from where he was sent on to Palestine, to be based at the main airport at Lydda (now Lod). His memories of Palestine were not positive. Being a serious and relatively self-contained young man, he was already keen to find a way of going to university and had no time for the military life. The RAF were probably no less excited by him than he was of them and he was finally demobbed in 1947 after an unsatisfactory time in which his demob date was extended due to the shortage of radar operators in Palestine. 

But it was the war that was ultimately the making of him. Surviving on a government grant for returning servicemen, he gained a first class degree in biochemistry at the University of Birmingham, living at home with parents and passing his grant to his mother to cover his living costs. 

Having met Vera at a dance, they married in 1951 and he moved on to PhD studies, gaining his doctorate in 1954 on “Transglycosidation by Aspergillus Niger (strain 152)”. I still have a copy of his PhD, its beautifully bound carbon paper pages devotedly typed by my mother in her evenings after working all day to support his studies and their rented room. My father was undoubtedly a brilliant academic who moved relatively quickly from lecturing in biochemistry at Birmingham university to taking up a role in industry with Glaxo. 

In 1961, he was recruited by Beecham, which had just established a new development centre in Worthing, leading a team of 18 in two small laboratories that were to become an international hub for the development of new antibiotics over the following decades. He and his team bridged the chasm between discoveries made by researchers and the development of processes to enable antibiotics to be produced in large and cost-effective quantities. His work ultimately led to the development of advanced production techniques for some of the most successful semi-synthetic penicillins, including Amoxil and Augmentin: broad spectrum antibiotics.

Indeed, in his final (and only) serious illness, he was pleased that one of the antibiotics with which he was treated had been developed by him more than 40 years earlier.

This is only a small snippet of Dr Carrington's full obituary, sharing details from his time at the University of Birmingham and elustrious career. The full article is available on The Independent's website.