Roger Woledge 1938 - 2015

31 October 2016 - By: SEB

In remembrance of Roger Woledge 1938 - 2015

Roger Woledge

A well-known and cherished member of the SEB community, Roger Woledge was thrilled to be invited to give the Bidder Lecture at the 2016 meeting in Brighton. Tragically, just after accepting the invitation, he died in a riding accident on 13 March 2015 at the age of 76. Three of his closest colleagues – Nancy Curtin, Chris Barclay and Di Newham – spoke in his stead to give us an insight into the diverse career and personal qualities of this extraordinary scientist. 

Roger’s academic journey began with a BSc in Physiology from University College London, which was to be his ‘academic home’ for life. This was followed by a MRC Scholarship for research training, supervised by the Nobel-Prize winning physiologist A.V. Hill. It is clear that this work – measuring heat production by frog muscle ex vivo – set the tone for the rest of his career. “Roger’s lifelong work on the energetics of muscle contraction grew out of the seeds shown by his training with A.V. but these branched out in all sorts of directions” said Nancy Curtin (Imperial College London and Royal Veterinary College, United Kingdom). His PhD (under Doug Wilkie) on tortoises was “a muscle classic” demonstrating that this species has the most efficient muscles known. Following this, he progressed through the academic ranks at UCL, becoming Head of the Department of Physiology in 1988, then serving as Director of the newly-formed Institute of Human Performance from 1994 – 2003.

A single lecture cannot fully do justice to the output of Roger’s published works, which span 54 years, hence keynote discoveries were selected to illustrate his particular attributes. Nancy described how his rigorously precise quantitative approach played a dominant role in establishing the modern field of muscle physiology. “When muscles contract, they produce heat, and we used this as a quantitative measure of energy turnover” explained Nancy. But Roger wasn’t content with traditional contraction protocols for isolated muscles: “What was new was his interest in the energetics of contractions mimicking those during locomotion” says Nancy. “From this, we found that the patterns of stimulation and movement that give maximum power output differ from those that give maximum efficiency, showing that there is scope for individual muscles to be used in different ways”. 
Roger Woledge tribute

 Later in his career, Roger worked with Chris Barclay (Griffith University, Australia) investigating the cellular underpinnings of muscle efficiency using different models of muscle contraction, extending the work of his PhD on tortoise muscle. From this, “Roger started the idea that muscles can only have high efficiency at the expense of the ability to generate power – there is a trade-off” says Chris. 

Roger also had a distinct versatility; as Chris said “it is certainly rare for someone based in cellular physiology to turn his attention so successfully to human movement and physiotherapy research”.  Di Newham (Kings College London, United Kingdom) described how during his ‘retirement years’ Roger became interested in how aging affects muscle movement and in particular, why the elderly are prone to falling. Roger’s “outstanding intellectual ability combined with his programming and mathematical skills” enabled him to comprehend data from 3D-Motion tracking experiments and uncouple the separate roles of strength and balance in postural control. “Roger demonstrated that, in older people, variability in step width is the main cause of sway when walking” said Di. “People who don’t fall tend to keep a very fixed distance between their feet”. 

Aside from his research, Roger was a gifted teacher whose legacy lives on in the many students he taught and mentored. “He had a complete absence of arrogance or ego, and a genuine desire to help people with their research” said Di. As such, Roger is greatly missed both as a pioneering researcher and a mentor. It is no surprise then, that, as Nancy said, “when Roger died, a lot of people felt like they had lost their best friend”.

Category: Brighton 2016

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