Soham Grammarians - Alfred Spinks
25 February 1917-11 February 1982

largely based on the entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Spinks, Alfred (1917–1982), chemist and biologist, was born in Littleport, Cambridgeshire, on 25 February 1917, the only child of Alfred Robert Spinks, manager of a Littleport brewery, and his wife, Ruth Harley. He attended the local infants' and village boys' school, and in 1932 won a scholarship to Soham Grammar School. In the Cambridge Higher School Certificate examinations in July 1934 he gained Distinctions in Botany, Mathematics and Passed in Chemistry, Essay and subsidiary French. In 1935 he was awarded an Isle of Ely County Major Scholarship of the annual value of 70 a year tenable at a University.

He studied chemistry at University College, Nottingham. In the 1938 University of London BSc external degree examination he gained the highest chemistry marks of any candidate and was awarded the Neil Arnott studentship for postgraduate studies. He chose to go to Imperial College under Ian Heilbron, where he worked with A. W. Johnson on vitamin A synthesis. He gained his PhD in 1940.

He was employed by ICI, but continued to work under Heilbron at Imperial College. In 1942 he moved to ICI's dyestuffs division at Blackley, and worked under F. L. Rose in the new medicinal chemistry section, determining concentrations of sulphonamides in animal tissues. Over the next eight years he made an intensive study of the behaviour of organic compounds in animals as relationships between chemical structure and drug absorption became an important concept in new drug design at ICI.

On 19 Dec 1946 at St. Mary's Church, Disley, Spinks married Patricia, daughter of Frederick Charles Kilner of Disley, an engineer with Manchester corporation waterworks; they had two daughters.

By 1950 Spinks was self-educated in biochemistry, pharmacology, and physiology, and a far-sighted divisional research director, Clifford Paine, sent him to Worcester College, Oxford, to study physiology. Taking a degree was not a requisite but he did so, obtaining a first after two years' study. When he returned to Blackley plans for the independent pharmaceuticals division were well advanced and Spinks became head of the new pharmacology section.

Spinks's promotion to research manager of the first ICI biochemistry department in 1961 marked the beginning of his career as an administrator. Based at Alderley Park he became divisional research director in 1966 and then, after a brief period as deputy chairman, he joined the ICI main board, becoming responsible for research and development throughout the whole of the company. In 1975 he was made a Fellow of Imperial College London

Spinks believed that scientists in the laboratory were the driving force in research, and often found time to visit and encourage them even though they worked in fields remote from his personal experience. He was particularly sensitive to the problems of chemicals in the environment, and established procedures to ascertain the possible mutagenic or carcinogenic risk of compounds made by the company. His more general responsibilities extended to pharmaceuticals, Nobel and agricultural divisions, and to certain countries overseas, particularly South Africa, where during the years of apartheid he took an active part in introducing a unified pay scale for all employees irrespective of colour or race.

Spinks retired from the board of ICI in 1979 but his multidisciplinary mastery and wide experience ensured that his advice remained widely sought. He was a founder member in 1976 of the Advisory Council for Applied Research and Development (ACARD), of which he was chairman from 1980 until his death. His impact on science policy was most notably evident in the report of a joint working party of ACARD, the Advisory Board for Research Councils, and the Royal Society on the emerging field of biotechnology—the Spinks report.

On his retirement he was appointed to the royal commission on environmental pollution, to the boards of Dunlop and Johnson Matthey, and as chairman of Charter Consolidated. He was involved in the affairs of many learned societies and especially of the Chemical Society of which he became president in 1979–80.

He was elected FRS in 1977 and appointed CBE the following year. His great natural ability was augmented with vast knowledge and wide experience, and he developed keen interests in music (his father had been a chorister in Ely Cathedral), the arts, photography, and gardening. He was regarded as a large, kindly, sociable man, whose intellect, nevertheless, bordered on the intimidating. Spinks died at his home, Woodcote, Torkington Road, Wilmslow, Cheshire, on 11 February 1982.


Soham Grammarian Autumn 1938

Alfred Spinks, who has been at Nottingham University for the past three years, has obtained his BSc, with 1st class honours in chemistry, in the London University external examination. He was awarded the Neil Arnott studentship, tenable at the Imperial College, London, where he has taken up research work.


page last updated 26 Nov 2007