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Dainty, Jack (1919–2009), plant biophysicist, was born at 7 Beaconsfield Street, Mexborough, a depressed coal-mining town in Yorkshire, on 7 May 1919, the eldest son of Jack Dainty (1895–1924), steelworks electrician, and his wife, Evelyn, née Vickers (1895–1983). He had two younger brothers, Eric (b. 1921) and George (b. 1924). His father died when Dainty was five and he, together with his family, lived with his grandparents. In 1937, after attending Mexborough elementary and secondary schools, he won a scholarship in mathematics to Queens' College, Cambridge, the first member of his family to pursue education beyond the age of fourteen. Although specializing in physical sciences he emerged from school with a strong interest in biology, natural history (particularly birds), and evolution, fostered by long country walks and extensive reading. The seeds of his much later decision to transfer from physics to biology were already sown.

After a year at Cambridge, Dainty transferred from mathematics to physics, in which he graduated in 1940 with a first-class degree. He was directed to join a small group in Cambridge working on nuclear fission, part of the American/British effort to develop an atomic bomb. On 16 July 1941 he married Mary Elizabeth Elbeck (b. 1919), a biochemistry student and daughter of Henry Berridge Elbeck, farm labourer, of Upper Haugh, near Rotherham; they had three sons, Anton, Chris, and Patrick, and a daughter, Jacquetta. In 1946 Dainty moved to the Canadian Atomic Energy Laboratory at Chalk River, Ontario, and when in 1949 he took up an academic position in physics at the University of Edinburgh he seemed set to remain a nuclear physicist.

Dainty's transfer to biology came almost by accident, when in 1952 Edinburgh University agreed to set up a department of biophysics with Dainty as its head, in return for teaching physics to 300 unwilling medical, dental, and veterinary students. The department was set up initially with one graduate student, Enid MacRobbie (later a professor at Cambridge). Dainty's first task was to establish a research area in which he felt a physicist could make a significant contribution. Collaborating in work on the exchange of sodium across the membranes of cat nerves led him into the literature of ion transport in animal cell membranes. He realized that whereas animal physiologists had embraced physical concepts and techniques in their studies on transport, botanists had fallen behind. The opportunity was there for a physicist to introduce quantitative thinking and physical techniques into the study of ion transport in plants. Thus a long and productive research career in biology began with studies using radioactive isotopes to measure movement of sodium, potassium, and chloride ions into and out of plant cells. A number of lecturers were recruited and in 1958 he set up a graduate course in biophysics to attract graduates in the physical sciences and equip them to work in biology. In this he was very successful, attracting able students who went on to have successful careers in biology, including Roger Spanswick (later professor at Cornell University). In 1958 Dainty spent a very productive sabbatical at Sydney University, working with Alex Hope and Alan Walker, physicists attracted to biophysics by Leicester McAulay in the physics department at the University of Tasmania. Close links with Australian plant biophysicists were a feature of Dainty's career.

In 1963 Dainty became professor of biophysics in the newly established University of East Anglia in Norwich. There he repeated his successes in Edinburgh, setting up a very productive research group working on transport of water and solutes in plant cells, and establishing a very successful graduate course in biophysics which attracted graduates in physical sciences to work in biology, including Jim Barber (later professor at Imperial College, London) and many others. He also taught mathematics and physics to undergraduate biology students. He wrote two very powerful reviews, on water and ion transport respectively, which were designed to educate plant physiologists in biophysical thinking.

His first marriage having ended in divorce, on 16 April 1969 Dainty married Patricia Ann (Trish) Shea (b. 1937), daughter of William Alan Carlin and former wife of Jack D. Shea; they had two sons, Jack and Mathew. Also in 1969 Dainty moved to North America, first to the University of California at Los Angeles, then in 1971 to the University of Toronto, where he became chairman of the department of botany in Toronto, the largest such department in North America. He remained there until his retirement in 1984, and indeed beyond. He presided over a thriving department, giving encouragement to all groups. He had less time to be directly involved in research but remained a power behind a very active and distinguished group working on ion and water transport.

Dainty transformed the field of ion and water transport in plants by introducing biophysical concepts and techniques. His legacy was threefold. It lay first in a large number of rigorous research papers, on water and passive ion transport, the application of irreversible thermodynamics, the interactions of mobile ions with fixed charges in cell walls, and the mechanism of osmosis. Also important was the strong influence he had on others, both through personal contact and collaborations and more widely through the literature, particularly his reviews. Finally his legacy rested on the scientific dynasties he founded, when research students trained by him went out to form their own groups. Plant transport studies expanded a great deal during his career and he remained a central figure internationally throughout this time.

Dainty's international honours included fellowship of the royal societies of Canada and Edinburgh, and membership of L'Académie des Sciences de l'Institut de France and the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome. (He spoke French and Italian fluently, and was also conversant in Czech and Russian.) He was awarded the gold medal of the Canadian Society of Plant Physiologists and was a corresponding member of both the American Society of Plant Physiologists and the Botanical Society of America. He had passionate interests in literature (he was an avid reader with very catholic tastes), in classical music, and in football (as a schoolboy he had had a trial for Huddersfield Town). He was a lifelong socialist. He was remembered by colleagues above all as a modest, warm, and generous friend. His second marriage also ended in divorce, but he and Trish remained on good terms. He died on 29 May 2009 at Brooklands Nursing Home, Drayton, Norfolk, of pneumonia after a period of illness from prostate cancer. He was survived by the three sons of his first marriage and the two sons of his second; the daughter of his first marriage died as a child.

Enid MacRobbie


J. Dainty, ‘Prefatory chapter’, Annual Review of Plant Physiology and Plant Molecular Biology, 41 (1990), 1–29 · The Guardian (24 June 2009) · The Times (26 June 2009) · www.royalsoced.org.uk/cms/files/fellows/obits_alpha/dainty_jack.pdf, accessed on 13 June 2012 · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. certs. · d. cert.


obituary photographs · photograph, repro. in Dainty, Annual Review (1990), facing p. 1

Wealth at death  

under £38,000: probate, 29 July 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales