When he was a young lecturer at the University of Birmingham in England, Larry Kricka and his wife would pack their bags during the winter break and make their way to the seaside town of Sidmouth. Once a tiny and forgotten fishing village, Sidmouth was transformed during the 18th and 19th centuries into a fashionable resort, and its sprawling esplanade still teems with summer tourists. But for Kricka, Sidmouth's charm was best revealed in the off-season.
Years later, he would express his affection for the town in an ode. Measuring 25 lines and 116 words, each beginning with an s, the ode begins by describing the natural beauty of the place—its “storm swept sandstone,” “seagull shrieked sky,” and “sea splashed stanchions.” As the poem goes on, Sidmouth becomes an almost human presence: “Somber sun scarred streets seek solace/Silt soiled steps stand steadfast.”
Larry Kricka loves Sidmouth. He loves alliteration, too. He tends to focus his alliterative attention on subjects he feels deeply about, drawn from his professional life as a clinical chemist as well as from his personal experience. Over the past few years he has published verses about DNA and microchips. But there is something especially revealing about the ode to Sidmouth. Taken singly, its lines and phrases are evocative pearls that cast a mood. Strung together, they have a cumulative effect that is dazzling, almost dizzying—an exhaustive compendium of almost every word that could be applied to Sidmouth, arranged in the best possible order. As one reads it from beginning to end, the ode appears to be a puzzle as much as a poem.
Kricka, who is currently a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, says as much when asked what so attracts him to alliteration. “I think it's the challenge of finding words that all begin with the same letter that you string together into sentences that make sense,” he said. What makes the enterprise even more challenging is that no word can be used more than once. Kricka is currently working to complete an alphabet's worth of such constructions. “My goal is to try and write a complete A to Z of alliterative verses, though there may be a limit as to what is possible. Try ‘x'—not a lot to be said that is meaningful for a xenophobic xylophone!” he said.
If it can be done, one gets the sense that Kricka will be the one to do it. Genteel and elegant, almost aristocratic in bearing, he is widely regarded as one of the most competitive and accomplished clinical chemists of his generation. He has tackled some of his field's most challenging questions, opening up entirely new areas of study in the process.
“He has not tended to embark on research in areas that other people have already trodden extensively,” said Peter Wilding, professor emeritus in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center.
In the 1970s, when Kricka set out on his career, clinical assays commonly used radioisotope labels, which were notoriously hazardous. “Everyone wanted to get rid of the isotopes. This was really like a holy grail for quite a while,” he said. A handful of researchers were exploring the use of light-emitting chemical tags, but the chemiluminescent labels were often too pale to see. Kricka and his colleagues had the idea to pair one of the chemicals, luminol, with an enhancer. They spent years developing the approach, submitting it to exhaustive analysis, testing it on a broad array of biological targets, and, finally, patenting it.
Kricka would repeat this sequence—creative thinking followed by meticulous analysis leading to patent—over and over, and not just in the burgeoning field of luminescence. In the 1980s, working with Wilding in what would become an extraordinarily productive and almost iconic partnership, he extended his hallmark thoroughness to the then unpopular field of microchips. Together, the pair would earn 17 patents.
“Larry gets to the heart of the question very quickly; he's able to pinpoint what needs to be done,” said Paolo Fortina, professor of cancer biology at Jefferson University. “And he always has a contingency plan; he's always a little bit ahead of the others. You do the experiment; you expect a certain result. He's already thinking, ‘What will be the next thing to be done?'”
Kricka makes no bones about being competitive. He freely admits to playing his scientific cards very close to his chest, a habit he developed early in his career, as part of a more general credo he calls “patent or perish.” “If you really want to protect your invention, you've got to do this. You mustn't reveal it to anyone, you mustn't publish it, and you mustn't talk about it. You've got to wait until the patent process is finished, because industry is not going to invest a large amount of money in a technology if they think a competitor is doing the same thing at the same time,” he said.
Kricka appears happy to share his philosophy with colleagues and remains one of the most well-liked people in his field. He is enormously energetic and outgoing. “He makes you feel extremely comfortable when you're with him,” Fortina said. There is also the British charm, said Fortina though the total package is closer to Sydney than Sidmouth. “Have you been to Sydney? It's a vibrant city just like New York City, but at the same time it has that British culture and education,” said Fortina.
England was actually Kricka's second home. He was born in 1947 in Czechoslovakia, in the spa town of Karlovy Vary, sometimes called Carlsbad, to a Czech father and British mother. The couple, who met during World War II, decided to flee to England with their 6-month-old son Larry as the Russians gained power.
The family, which grew to include a younger brother, Pavel, settled into a semidetached house in a quiet suburb of Birmingham. Kricka's father, who had owned his own bakery in Czechoslovakia, began working in other people's shops. “I used to visit him where he worked. I could eat any cakes I wanted to,” said Kricka.
Although his upbringing was, in many respects, typically English—he played wing forward on his local rugby team—Kricka displayed, at a relatively young age, an unusual passion for chemistry. Like many future chemists, he collected compounds and scientific equipment, neither of which remained idle. “I think if you asked every child who had a chemistry set and made things as a child, all of them would tell you about how they made gunpowder and nitrogen triiodide,” he said.
His hands-on approach would be encouraged by his teachers. As a boy, Kricka attended Lordswood Technical School, which was built in the 1950s as a prototype of a new, more applied and multidisciplinary approach to education and offered courses in technical drawing and metal- and woodworking, in addition to the sciences. In 1965, he entered what was then a very young and dynamic chemistry department at York University. With its medieval walls and Elizabethan buildings, York would be a kind of Shangri-la for the Birmingham-raised Kricka. He stayed on to embark on his graduate work, for a PhD in organic chemistry with John Vernon.
One summer evening, while eating in the dining hall, he met a young history major named Barbara, who was studying to be a teacher at a nearby college. They were married a year later and soon after moved to Liverpool, where Kricka took up postdoctoral work with Tony Ledwith. The couple bought their first house and had their first child, Simon.
Ledwith encouraged Kricka's interest in the biological applications of chemistry and opened his eyes to the world of patents. A year and a half later, Kricka was offered a faculty position at the Wolfson Research Laboratory at the University of Birmingham.
“Quite frankly, immediately there was a sense of energy that Larry has always exhibited,” said Wilding, who was on the selection committee along with the late Tom Whitehead. Kricka was a perfect fit for the Wolfson, which was emerging as one of the most dynamic and multidisciplinary centers in all of Britain. It was there that Kricka embarked on his groundbreaking work on luminescence, which would eventually earn him a Queen's Award, as well as numerous patents.
Kricka stayed at the Wolfson from 1973 until 1987, with a 1-year break, in 1981, for a fellowship at the University of California, San Diego. His family—which had grown to include a daughter, Anna, and another son, Thomas—enjoyed the outdoor life and the nearby beach. Kricka was excited by American science. “We always knew that our future plans might include permanently relocating to the US,” he said.
In 1987, Wilding, who by then had moved to the University of Pennsylvania, invited him to visit. “I was made an offer. I've never regretted it,” said Kricka, who has held the post of Director of General Chemistry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania since his arrival. In 2009, he was also appointed Director of the Critical Care Laboratory.
Kricka's only regret is that he does not live closer to his office. He rises at 5:26 AM and leaves his elegantly furnished home in the leafy suburb of Devon to catch the 6 AM train into Philadelphia. By 7 AM he is in his office, where, after catching up with the nighttime clinical staff, he has breakfast. “No one calls me at that hour,” he said.
Although Kricka hates the local commute, he loves traveling with Barbara to see Simon, Anna, and Thomas, who are now grown and live in Boulder, Austin, and Toulouse, France, respectively.
Kricka loves good food and wine and is a connoisseur of both, and he applies his knowledge even when traveling professionally. “No matter where you go, in any place in the world, he will know where to eat,” said Fortina.
Back in Philadelphia, he and Barbara are members—along with Wilding and his wife and about 8 other couples—of the Screw Top Wine Club, which has been meeting 8–10 times a year for the past 22 years. “Hosts have complete carte blanche. They determine what the wine is going to be. They produce a written description of the wines that will be served,” said Wilding, who has a record of every description. One evening in 2005, it was Kricka's turn to host.
“First he presented ‘Brute – bubbly, brazen, boisterous, and beautiful,'” Wilding recalled. “Next he presented ‘Burgundy and Bordeaux Blanc – brittle, bashful, and balanced.' He presented ‘Bold and buxom Burgundy and Beaujolais.' And then he presented ‘A bountiful, beguiling, and benevolent beverage.'”
The effect was vintage Kricka.
Author Contributions: All authors confirmed they have contributed to the intellectual content of this paper and have met the following 3 requirements: (a) significant contributions to the conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; (b) drafting or revising the article for intellectual content; and (c) final approval of the published article.
Authors' Disclosures of Potential Conflicts of Interest: No authors declared any potential conflicts of interest.
Role of Sponsor: The funding organizations played no role in the design of study, choice of enrolled patients, review and interpretation of data, or preparation or approval of manuscript.
Sponsored by the AACC History Division and Department of Laboratory Medicine Children's Hospital Boston
- © 2010 The American Association for Clinical Chemistry