Remembering Professor R. Frank Curtis

8th June 2023

Professor R. F. (Frank) Curtis, the second Director of Food Research Institute, Norwich from 1977 until 1985, died peacefully in a nursing home near Reading on 11th March 2023.

A photo form the 1980s of a man wearing a shirt and tie, sat at a desk writing and looking directly at the camera.

Prof. R. F. Curtis, CBE, BSc, PhD, DSc, FRSC, FIFST

He joined the institute in 1970 from the University College of Swansea, where he was a reader in Organic Chemistry, taking up the position of Head of the Chemistry Division. Here his expertise supported their work understanding the links between the chemical composition of foods and its safety, nutritive value and taste & texture.

He oversaw provision of increased provision of mass spectrometry, chromatography and other chemistry facilities for the whole institute at a time when the expertise in this area within the institute was nationally recognised. He also sought to increase interaction with the food industry.

His own research in the institute covered subjects including mycotoxins in broiler house litter and the production of stress metabolites in carrots stored in ethylene.

On 1st October 1977, Prof. Curtis succeeded the inaugural director, Prof. S. R. Elsden, and he accepted an Honorary Professorship from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in February 1978.

Within weeks of taking over the reins, he hosted a Visiting Group from the Agricultural Research Council, the first in eight years, which recommended a major strategic change in direction for the institute. They required a medium- and longer-term focus on the broader interests of consumers, as well as providing assistance to the food manufacturing industry.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II discussing with Prof. Curtis FRI’s exhibit at the ARC ‘Jubilee Soiree’ in June 1981

Prof. Curtis skilfully combined these seemingly contradictory objectives, focusing on the shared interests of the consumer and the food industry in ensuring a supply of safe, nutritious food that the consumers wanted and enjoyed. It saw a move away from research into primary crop production, towards understanding and improving food processing. It meant a major restructuring of the way the institute’s research was organised, but Prof. Curtis largely was commended for bringing the staff along with him during this period of change and expanding into new areas with the appointment of new staff.

By 1980 the institute had grown to over 200 staff and received the largest contribution from the ARC’s budget for food research in the UK, reflecting its wider remit in responding to the needs of the food industry, and consumers. Where there were potential conflicts, he saw the institute’s role to be “investigative but impartial: it will act as a source of unbiased information.”

Growth continued to 232 staff by 1982, with the move of the National Collection of Yeast Cultures to Norwich, and the establishment of a Process Physics Division, to bring physical and engineering expertise into food research. Food was very much on the government’s agenda; the success of the Norwich labs saw the ARC add an ‘F’ to its name and become the Agricultural and Food Research Council (the predecessor to BBSRC).

He was invested as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire at Buckingham Palace on 19th February 1985.

AFRC wanted to replicate the revised remit of the Norwich laboratories elsewhere and brought them under the same management. It was perhaps inevitable that Prof. Curtis was selected to lead them.

On 1st November 1985 he was appointed as Director of Food Research of the Agricultural and Food Research Council (the predecessor to BBSRC). In this role he had overall responsibility for the three laboratories of the Food Research Institute in Norwich, Bristol and Reading, with particular focus on developing and coordinating their research programmes. Although he was now based in Reading, he worked hard to maintain close contact with Norwich, as well as Bristol, and launched initiatives to link staff across the sites.

This was no small task; each laboratory had its own proud history stretching back decades and Prof. Curtis’s task was to combine these independent, competing institutions into one unified operation, now known as the Institute of Food Research.

As Director of the IFR, he also contributed to the AFRC’s overall food research strategy, and as senior officer of the council was the main contact in food matters with the Government.

John MacGregor MP and Prof. Frank Curtis discussing oil-seed rape analysis with Prof Roger Fenwick

During this period, the proportion of funding for food research increased by almost 50% compared to what it was five years previously. Locally, government interactions were strong. Agriculture Minister John Macgregor MP, in whose constituency IFR Norwich was sited, was a regular visitor to the institute, and Prof Curtis was keen to ensure the minister was aware of the institute’s work, including an informal visit in September 1987.

Prof. Curtis recognised the “sound store of expertise built up over many years” and strategically kept their strengths and knowledge, whilst forging ahead with new opportunities for a stronger, integrated multi-disciplinary research programme with strengthened links not only with the food industry, but also their neighbouring universities and research organisations.

Bacterial genetics, for example, was concentrated in Norwich, benefitting from close communication with the John Innes Institute and UEA. Norwich remains a leading site for microbiology research in the UK to this day. Human Nutrition research was also brought together in Norwich, to link with other local clinical research, reflecting a sharper focus on diet and health.

Prof. Curtis was also a leading advocate for siting a new university hospital close to the institute and University of East Anglia, in Colney, Norwich. His vision could see the clear long-term benefits of co-locating the new hospital with the university and centres of excellence for diet and health. It allowed closer links with academia, crucial for retaining and attracting high quality medical staff, and, eventually, training the next generations. Consultants could also access the latest technologies the research institute possessed, aiding the development of clinical sample analysis services, and the deployment of that tech for patient care. But it was the addition of the hospital to the research environment that promised to transform Norwich into one of the major scientific complexes in the UK; a vision for the 21st Century that was realised through the Norwich Research Park as one of the largest single-site concentrations of research in food, genomics and health in Europe.

Prof. Curtis was also the first Chair of the Norfolk and Waveney Mental Health Trust, and the Frank Curtis Library that he opened in 2001 still bears his name, providing services to staff and students of the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust.

Frank Curtis retired from the Institute of Food Research in September 1988. Not long after that, a major rethink from government saw a move away from near-market food research, and further reorganisation of its research that saw consolidation into Norwich. But his legacy on food research in the UK lives on through the organisations and people he worked with, nowhere more so than in Norwich.

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Frank Curtis was the first Director of the IFR which came from the amalgamation of the laboratories at Norwich and Reading. Not only was he the first but, to many of the staff, he was far and away the best of all. He was aware of the politics involved in maintaining a viable research institution at a time when the Research Councils were under pressure to close many of their sites.

However, more than this he was an inspirational leader who cared for the staff and placed a high priority on team building, which incidentally continues today through the IFR Buddies group. That said he was a hard but fair negotiator with the occasional “piratical” style, as we in the Trades Union side recognised. Following his retirement he continued with his public service as Chair of the Norfolk and Waveney Mental Healthcare Trust, where his skills were also much appreciated by the staff. If there more with Frank’s skills today we might all be in a better position. A life lived well in the service of both science and scientists. Geoff and Heather Evans