David Minnikin obituary

My father, David Minnikin, who has died aged 81, was a researcher in the field of mycobacteria – the bacteria that cause diseases such as tuberculosis. His work identifying the chemical make-up of the waxy shield around these cells led to new treatments being developed for the disease. His method for identifying the chemicals in the cell shield, enabling drugs to be targeted at them, became known as the “Minnikin method”.

David was born in Newton, a village west of Newcastle upon Tyne, the son of Jane (nee Telfer), a farmer’s daughter, and Thomas Minnikin, a gardener. He attended a local school in Corbridge, and sat the entrance exams to Lord Wandsworth college, in Hampshire, gaining a scholarship as a boarder. He excelled academically and took a keen interest in sports.

From there he won a scholarship to study chemistry at Trinity College, Oxford, graduating in 1963, and going on to take a DPhil on the chemistry of the lipids of tubercle bacilli at the Dyson Perrins laboratory in 1967.

That year he became a senior research officer at the inorganic chemistry department of the University of Newcastle, where he mentored young researchers and students. He was promoted to senior lecturer in 1985.

His early studies in the 1980s used specific bacterial lipids as a fingerprint to identify and group bacteria, in particular antibiotic-producing bacteria. In 1982, he described the waxy coat of unusual lipids and sugars around the tuberculosis organism, which provided a shield against common antibiotics. His subsequent studies based on “the Minnkin model” identified several new drugs that would weaken this shield, thereby shaping efforts in drug discovery against tuberculosis. This is recognised as a landmark in mycobacterial research – and all carried out before the era of genomics.

In 2002 he was appointed professor of microbial chemistry at Newcastle. The same year, he moved his research to the University of Birmingham. There, with Gurdyal Besra, he established a new world-leading research group on tuberculosis. In his latter years, he developed a keen interest in tracing the evolution of the same type of infections, causing leprosy as well as TB.

He never really retired, but officially stepped down from Birmingham university in 2007. He continued to write papers and chapters for books as well as assessing PhD students.

David was a keen sportsman, with a particular passion for cricket and his home team in Newton, where he grew up. He was also a keen mountaineer and hill walker all his life. His retirement allowed him to finish all the Munros (peaks over 3000 feet in Scotland) and the Lakeland Wainwrights tops, from his home base in Threlkeld, Cumbria.

David was widowed twice. His first wife, Susan (nee Stow), my mother, died in 2000. His second wife, Marion (nee Turner) died in 2020.


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