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Larissa Wakefield obituary

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My wife, Larissa Wakefield, who has died aged 61, after being diagnosed earlier this year with a brain tumour, was a naturalist, scientist and potter. She had a highly successful research career both before and after a 10-year break, during which she devoted herself to bringing up our children and running a pottery.

One of Larissa Wakefield’s pots on the cover of Nature Genetics
One of Larissa Wakefield’s pots on the cover of Nature Genetics

Larissa was brought up in the Isles of Scilly, where her lifelong fascination with nature began. Her parents, Humfrey Wakefield and his wife, Helena (nee Oakeshott), ran a thriving pottery on the Garrison peninsula of St Mary’s, the largest of the Isles, for several decades, providing an idyllic background for her childhood.

After attending Badminton school in Bristol, Larissa read natural sciences at Cambridge, and went on to do a PhD with the Nobel laureate Sir John Gurdon at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. Her research characterised cytoplasmic components that regulate gene expression in development. We met at the lab in 1981 and were married in St Mary’s in 1983.

Two years later we moved to Oxford, and Larissa changed fields to study the influenza virus, specifically on proteins involved in virus assembly. Later, after her career break, she returned to the lab in the department of pharmacology, publishing several papers on drug-resistant strains of TB.

While away from the lab, Larissa set up a pottery in our terraced house in east Oxford, sending produce to her father’s showroom in Scilly. Her work was popular and unusual, often using inspiration from molecular biology for her designs. One pot achieved prominence as the cover picture for Nature Genetics, with a decoration showing how a transcription factor binds to DNA.

Larissa Wakefield’s drawings of acorn barnacles
Larissa Wakefield’s drawings of acorn barnacles
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In 2008, Larissa was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease, which forced her to give up her job and potting. In response, she took up other projects, including publishing a website on the natural history and geology of the Scilly Isles, and producing handouts for the museum in St Mary’s. She studied how subspecies, such as the St Martin’s ant and the Scilly shrew, arrived on the islands, since they are unique to Scilly. Later, she produced a series of exquisite drawings of microscopic marine creatures, which featured on a series of cards and T-shirts.

Larissa’s management of Parkinson’s was characteristic of her personality. She was adamant about taking the absolute minimum of drugs, complementing this with a demanding exercise and diet regime. During her final illness, she recorded a talk from her hospice bed on how the strategies of extreme athletes can be used by Parkinson’s patients for everyday activities such as crossing the road.

Her modesty, her kind and generous nature, and her brave, uncomplaining ability to cope with adversity were an inspiration to friends and family.

She is survived by me and our daughters, Nina and Emily.



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