John Savory was born on an early spring day in 1936, in an upstairs bedroom in his parents' house, in a tiny village in the Rossendale Valley in the northwest of England. Damp and misty, even by British standards, the valley's steep hills and stone-fenced fields had been transformed, during the early 19th century, into a backdrop for the burgeoning textile industry—the wet climate kept the cotton fibers, imported largely from the American South, from breaking. During the American Civil War, those cotton supplies were cut off, leaving many out of work. The upstairs bedroom where Savory was born served as a soup kitchen during those lean years.
That room, with its unlikely link to America, was a fitting place for Savory to make his entry. Obsessed with cricket and other typically British pursuits as a boy, and educated in the ancient cathedral city of Durham at a time when students still wore gowns to classes, Savory would play out the vaster drama of his life on American soil. In 1961, only weeks after receiving his PhD in organic chemistry, he arrived in Jacksonville, Florida, for a two-year fellowship. He stayed and, after a brief stint in industry, embarked on a training program in clinical chemistry at the University of Washington in Seattle.
It was a radical moment in clinical chemistry. Electrophoresis, radioimmunoassay, and other new disease-detecting methods had recently been invented. Automated instruments, such as the centrifugal analyzer, promised to take the time and drudgery out of lab work. Yet it was not yet clear how to implement or even arrange the new-fangled machines in the lab.
Over the next few years, Savory, who is emeritus professor and director of clinical chemistry, toxicology, and core laboratories at the University of Virginia, helped to spearhead a kind of industrial revolution in clinical chemistry, devising methods for analyzing proteins using the centrifugal analyzer, atomic absorption spectroscopy, and other instruments. In 1967, back at the University of Florida, he helped to introduce computers into the lab. As the technologies caught on, they brought a new challenge: how to coordinate the huge amount of data, and people, flowing in and out of the clinical laboratory. Savory had the idea to use robotics and, working with James Boyd and Robin Felder at the University of Virginia, developed an ingenious data-management program, Remote Automated Laboratory Systems (RALS), that can monitor and run an unmanned laboratory from a remote location.
Savory loves hands-on challenges—they are a large part of what attracts him to clinical chemistry. “If there's a problem to solve, a meaningful problem, I can be quite creative,” he said. He has a knack for seeing whole new areas of research before they become obvious. “He had a certain prescience in terms of anticipating new developments in the field that were going to turn out to be important. He anticipated the use of molecular techniques in the lab and always had a view to the future,” said Boyd, associate professor of pathology at the University of Virginia.
Having glimpsed a new trend or answer to a long-standing problem, he would plunge in with roll-up-your-sleeves gusto. Whether devising a new method or rehabilitating a derelict laboratory, there was the sense that he relishes being in the lab, feels deeply comfortable there, and takes delight in imagining how it might be made better. “He loves to move furniture around,” said Boyd.
Savory would even reinvent himself. During the 1990s, he suspected that aluminum toxicity might play a role in Alzheimer and other neurodegenerative diseases. He would essentially retrain as a neuroscientist to explore his hypothesis.
“That's stepping way outside of the comfort zone of an analytical chemist,” said Roger Bertholf, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Florida College of Medicine. “He was never intimidated by anything like that. He embraced the challenge.”
Becoming a scientist of any stripe was an unlikely fate for a shy boy growing up in the remote Rossendale Valley, in the shadow of the two World Wars. Savory's parents had turned the first floor of their house, just below the room where John was born, into a small bakery. “Apparently my parents' shop was full of customers when my first cries could be heard from the room above the shop,” he said. Though times were tough, the house was always filled with the smell of baking. His father managed to present him with a cricket bat on his fourth birthday, the same day as the Battle of Britain.
He would practice by himself for hours behind the house, which faced onto the River Irwell. Smoke from the nearby mills and factories punctuated the sky, as did the sounds of sirens. “It seemed normal to live through air raids,” he said. Savory took refuge in cricket and at the age of eight was invited to play his first real match with boys 13 and 14 years old. “I was pretty good at it. My main problem was this uncertainty about myself. I would get very nervous,” he said.
He loved listening to his mother and sister Mary, who was 6 years older, play the piano, but when it came to selecting an instrument, he chose the violin. “It comes closer to the human voice,” he said. After school, he would take the bus to the nearby town of Rawtenstall, get off, and walk along a dark road until he reached his violin teacher's house. “I always pointed my flashlight down,” he said. Pointing a flashlight up into the nighttime sky was against the law during the war. His teacher moved away when he was 10 years old, to his dismay, though he continued playing in school orchestras.
Savory loved animals and wanted a dog, but his mother wouldn't let him get one, so he began raising and breeding rabbits—English and Ermine Rex—in his backyard. He would travel by bus on Saturday afternoons to nearby towns to show his animals.
Considering the time and energy he lavished on these passions—cricket, music, and rabbit breeding—it's a wonder that he developed an interest in chemistry. To start, school held no attraction. “I can still picture being carried there by my mother. I was trying to pull her hair,” he said. Though he was a less than diligent student, Savory passed the highly competitive exam to get into secondary, or grammar, school. He was one of only three in his elementary school class of 25 to do so.
Once there, he was drawn to chemistry for the usual reason—“I liked to blow things up,” he said. It was a teacher, Mr. Ormerod, who helped to spark a deeper interest. Though Savory was spending hours on the cricket field and secretly hoped he might become a professional player, he decided at the age of 15 to train to be a chemistry teacher. He passed his final exams, or A levels, well enough to get into the honors chemistry program at the University of Durham, but it was not until his third year that he had his first taste of research.
“I instantly loved it. I loved mixing things together, finding out what happens—the excitement of doing something no one else has ever done,” he said. He passed his final university exams with such good grades that his department offered him a place in their doctoral program. “I didn't think I was smart enough,” he said. “My finals allowed me to realize that I was quite creative if I could see something useful at the end.”
Savory would finish his PhD in organic fluorine chemistry in three years, and then move with his wife Anne to the University of Florida. The couple had met a few years earlier at a Saturday evening dance in Durham. “Everybody I knew met their wives at a dance on a Saturday night,” he said. They traveled by freighter from Glasgow and arrived in Jacksonville in the summer of 1961. “I had never experienced air conditioning, I never even heard of air conditioning,” he said. Nor had they seen cockroaches. Their first apartment had cockroaches but no air conditioning. Most shocking was the segregation.
One night he and Anne went to see the Walt Disney movie, Big Red. “That was it—I just fell in love with Irish Setters,” he said. It was a life-defining moment. He and Anne would devote themselves to breeding and showing Irish setters. Anne would later make it into a career. “It's her life,” said Savory, who has traveled the world, showing and judging Irish Setters and other dogs.
Another defining moment came in 1963. After finishing his fellowship, he decided to take a job with a company in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. “I knew after the first day I wasn't going to be happy,” he said. One day, sitting at his desk, he read an article about the new field of clinical chemistry. “I thought, ‘Gee, never even heard of it but that sounds like the sort of thing I'd like to be.' I decided I wanted to be a clinical chemist,” he said.
He and Anne would pack up and move to Seattle, where he started his training in clinical chemistry under Alex Kaplan. They returned to Florida in 1966 and adopted a little girl, Joy. Savory—who had played cricket competitively while in Seattle—spent whatever free time he had playing in a field near a swamp. “You had to be a little cautious if you hit the ball into the swamp—there were lots of alligators.”
In 1972, he was offered a position at the University of North Carolina.
“By far, the best thing there was that I was able to take a lab that really needed help,” he said. He quickly built up the lab, with the help of his lab supervisor, Gerry, and established a training program. But his marriage to Anne had broken up. In 1977, he accepted a position in the toxicology department at the University of Virginia. “The lab was exactly what I wanted—run down,” he said.
“This place was such a disaster,” said David Bruns, professor of pathology at the University of Virginia, who was hired around the same time as Savory. Bruns recalled Savory telling him about his wonderful supervisor. “I said, ‘Well why don't you get her up here?' He said, ‘Well, I would but I think I'd have to marry her to get her to come.' I said, ‘Well, so?' And he did.” Gerry became an integral part of the lab, even after giving birth to their son Alistair. “She brought a whole new tenor to the place—much more focused on analytical principles, great care and attention to detail and a real serious approach to the testing because it's people's lives that you're dealing with,” said Bruns.
Plunging into his old passions of cricket and animal breeding had been Savory's way of making a new place familiar, but in Virginia, he took up running, winning races in his age group. “If he was going to run, he was going to be competitive at it,” said Bertholf. “He has an innate athleticism in him that carries over,” said Boyd, who was for many years his running partner.
Savory retired from his position in 2005. Bruns organized a retirement celebration for him in 2008, which attracted former trainees from all over the world. “It's astonishing the number of clinical chemists that he's trained,” said Bertholf. Attendees were treated to a slide show, including photos of Savory as a youth and an adult, and ending with a limerick: There once was a runner named John/Who ran day after day, on and on/He kept up his training/Cause he thought Boyd was gaining/And might beat him if he turned weak and wan.
Then Savory, who is known for his mischievous humor, made his own presentation. “In 1982, he and I ran our first 10-mile race. He beat me,” Boyd said. Boyd felt so sick at the end of the race that he missed getting the free mesh shirts they were handing out. “John always held that over me—that he got a shirt,” Boyd said. At his retirement, Savory handed to Boyd the mesh shirt he won 16 years earlier.
Savory is currently training in yet another sport, golf. He wakes at 5:30 AM and, with Gerry, takes care of the dogs, two Irish Setters and two Rhodesian Ridgebacks. He then heads to the golf course where he tees off at 7:30. “He's one of the few people who carries their own clubs,” said Boyd. He returns for lunch to the 110-acre farm he bought with Gerry when they first moved to Charlottesville. Joy and Alistair live near by, as do Andrea and David, Gerry's children by a previous marriage. Between them, they have produced eight grandchildren, who might stop by for a visit.
After that Savory might take out his tractor. Or he might take one of his dogs for a walk on the farm, which is located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. With its sloping fields and woods, it is easy to imagine that this is what Rossendale looked like before the mills and factories. Savory's favorite spot is a little trail in the woods. “I often sit there if things aren't going right, if I have some problem. My Irish Setters will come and lick me on the ear. They sense when they're needed.”
- © 2011 The American Association for Clinical Chemistry