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Perry, Samuel Victor [Sam] (1918–2009), biochemist, was born on 16 July 1918 at Banchory, Adelaide Grove, East Cowes, Isle of Wight, the son of Samuel Perry (1895–1932), boilermaker, later commercial traveller, and his wife, Margaret, née Doherty. He had a younger sister, also Margaret. His father died from illness derived from his time in the trenches during the First World War when Perry was thirteen and living in Southport, Lancashire. In an autobiographical essay, ‘Fate has smiled kindly’, Perry later wrote appreciatively of the financial sacrifices made by his mother to provide him with educational opportunities. He attended the King George V Grammar School in Southport. There he was a successful student, excelling most in chemistry and sports. He was also inspired by books such as Men Against Death (1932) by Paul de Kruif, from which he learned about the emerging science of biological chemistry as exemplified by an account of the discovery of insulin. From school he went to Liverpool University, the first to offer undergraduate courses in biochemistry, which he studied following the required two years in honours chemistry. Because his name began with P he shared a laboratory bench with Rodney Porter, a lifelong friend who was later to win a Nobel prize. Both achieved first-class honours degrees. Each began research towards a doctoral degree in Liverpool under H. J. Channon, and being in a laboratory adjacent to that of the physicist James Chadwick, the Nobel laureate, had the opportunity to conduct some of the first radioisotope experiments in biology.

The Second World War inevitably interrupted Perry's career. In 1940 he was commissioned into the Royal Artillery and was allowed what he claimed was the only choice the army ever offered—to select his theatre of war. He chose the north Africa campaign. Captured in 1942, he spent over three years as a prisoner of war during which he made several escapes, each time to be recaptured. He maintained his interest in biochemistry throughout, carrying with him volume eleven of the Annual Review of Biochemistry, now kept amongst the archives of the Biochemical Society. He maintained that the fact that his Annual Review managed to keep up with him was daily evidence to remind him how unsuccessful were his escapes. He used his education wisely, taking part in teaching arranged by his fellow prisoners. His particular contribution was based around nutrition—a very important issue for men living on less than half the recommended calorific diet.

Following liberation, Perry resumed his academic education, successfully applying for a Rouse Ball research studentship at Trinity College, Cambridge. He described his time there as his halcyon days. His supervisor was the distinguished muscle biochemist Kenneth Bailey. He shared a laboratory with Porter, whom he had persuaded to come to Cambridge. Porter's supervisor was the double Nobel laureate, Fred Sanger. Sanger later described that laboratory as ‘probably the most enjoyable lab I have worked in’ (‘Sequences, sequences, and sequences’, Annual Review of Biochemistry, 57, 1988, 8). During this time Perry enjoyed great success in rugby football. Remarkably for someone who had suffered so much deprivation as a prisoner of war, he was selected to play for Cambridge University in January 1946 and won his blue in the 1946 and 1947 varsity matches. He gained the first of his seven international caps for England in 1947 as well as playing for the Barbarians, and was part of the Barbarians team which won a match against an all-conquering Australian side in 1948.

In May 1948 Perry was awarded his doctorate and was successful in obtaining a Trinity College research fellowship. In his doctoral thesis he showed that myosin, a major component of the contractile proteins of muscle, catalysed adenosine triphoshate (ATP) hydrolysis, thus providing important evidence for the process of chemical to mechanical energy conversion which is intrinsic to the biology of muscular contraction. In addition, by use of the electron microscope at Leeds University under W. T. (Bill) Astbury he was able to conclude that filaments of the protein actomyosin (comprising actin and myosin) were the contractile element of muscle based on their solubilization by ATP. On completing his PhD work he was awarded a Commonwealth Fund fellowship and on 19 August that year married Maureen Shaw (b. 1922), an actress and artist, daughter of Henry Tregent Shaw. Together they left for the fellowship year which was spent mostly in the laboratory of the eminent American physiologist Wallace Fenn at the University of Rochester but also enabled Perry to travel and establish ties with muscle scientists around the USA. Perry and his wife later had two daughters and a son.

For most of the 1950s Perry was a lecturer in the biochemistry department at Cambridge. His research was centred around the mechanism of muscular contraction and its regulation, that is how muscle is able to exist between an active state in which it contracts, generally against a load, and a relaxed state in which no mechanical work is done. He also wrestled with the problem of how ATP is regenerated from its breakdown products following its several cellular roles including that as an energy source in muscle contraction. In all of these areas he made significant contributions, notably through his role in the discovery of the calcium ion as being the mediator of muscle regulation. The proteins through which calcium mediates its regulatory function remained a major interest for the rest of his life, and an area on which he published papers well into his eighties. It was also at this time that he embarked on the first of several major reviews on muscle proteins that were a hallmark of his later career.

In 1959 Perry became professor of biochemistry and head of the biochemistry department at Birmingham University, in the faculty of science. There were other courses in biochemistry linked with the medical school and the brewing industry. Perry and the university benefited from the expansion of the 1960s. From 1968 the whole of biochemistry was housed in a fine new building and combined into a single entity with Perry as its chairman, a post he held until his formal retirement in 1985. Long-term support from the Medical Research Council meant that Perry could engage in strategic research. Many of his excellent post-doctoral workers and doctoral students went on to enrich the study of the protein chemistry of muscle. Discoveries arising from this school included that of muscle protein methylation and phosphorylation, the ramifications of which were still being unravelled by research groups around the world at the time of his death. In 1978 Perry and Peter Cummins published in the Biochemical Journal results that had profound clinical implications. They established that troponin I, one of the proteins that mediate the calcium response in muscle, induces a distinct immunological response depending on whether the protein's origin is from cardiac or skeletal muscle. This distinction became a major diagnostic tool for the detection of myocardial infarction (heart attack).

Perry assumed many administrative and professional responsibilities, most notably as chairman of the UK Biochemical Society from 1980 to 1983 (besides contributing to the society in many other ways). He served for twenty years (1970–90) on the research committee of the Muscular Dystrophy Group. His inspiration led to the founding of the European Muscle Club by Marcus Schaub, a visiting scientist to his laboratory. Among several distinctions were election as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1974 and delivering its Croonian lecture in 1984. He was the recipient of the Biochemical Society's CIBA medal in 1977. He continued to do research at Birmingham University well into retirement, aided especially by his long-term colleague Valerie Patchell. He published several more papers during this period. In all he published more than 300 scientific papers.

In 1959, shortly after moving to Birmingham, Perry purchased a broken-down watermill at Dinas Cross in Pembrokeshire. This proved a wonderful retreat. Perry rose to the challenge of restoring the mill and laying out a beautiful water garden, which became an excellent place for physical exercise for Perry and many members of his laboratory. Later he and his wife moved to a smaller property, also in Dinas Cross. He died on 17 December 2009 at Withybush General Hospital, North Prendergast, Pembrokeshire, after a series of illnesses in his later years. He was survived by his wife, Maureen, and their three children. In 2010 a memorial meeting was held at Birmingham University, and from July to October 2011 an exhibition, ‘Crystal world’, was organized at the Royal Society in his memory.

David R. Trentham

Sources  

S. V. Perry, ‘Fate has smiled kindly’, Comprehensive Biochemistry, 40 (1997), 383–462 · Daily Telegraph (9 Jan 2010) · The Times (19 Jan 2010) · The Biochemist, 32/1 (Feb 2010), 40–41 · Memoirs FRS, 57 (2011), 327–47 · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Likenesses  

M. Perry, portrait, priv. coll.; repro. in Memoirs FRS, 57 (2011), 344, · obituary photographs · photograph, repro. in S. V. Perry, ‘The regulation of contractile activity in muscle’, Biochemical Society Transactions, 7 (1979), 593

Wealth at death  

£426,818: probate, 12 April 2010, CGPLA Eng. & Wales