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Richard Carter 1945-2021

Last Friday, I attended the funeral of a dear friend and mentor Richard Carter. As his brother said during the ceremony, we have been left with a “Richard-sized hole” in our lives. He was a giant, both in stature and in the malaria community, which he contributed so much to, and it is a great sadness to me and many others not to be able to share ideas with him and draw on his profound and wide-ranging wisdom.

Richard (second from Right) together with (from left to Right) Jake Baum, Bob Sinden, Geoff Pasvol and Andrew Blagborough at a Symposium to celebrate Bob Sinden's work in May 2018.

I first met Richard when I was a PhD student in the late 1990s. I was feeling rudderless as a graduate student and found myself flirting with the idea of transferring my studies to Edinburgh. I found the mixture of evolutionary biology, genetics and infection there exciting and was considering the big move north. I don’t remember much from my meeting with Richard on that particular visit, other than a memory of meeting a very direct man, who saw through my wishy-washy ideas in an instant, and who wasn’t shy of telling me how hard funding would be if I embarked on this journey. 20 years later, through a colleague I learned that Richard was now living near London. Hearing this, I invited Richard to give a talk to my lab and address both his substantial works on malaria transmission biology and his views on progress towards malaria elimination, in particular Sri Lanka – both subjects I knew were close to his heart. What became clear on that day – and many others since - was that what I mistook on my first encounter for an irascible Scott was in fact an extremely generous man. Someone with a razor–sharp intellect, deep humility, who preferred truth rather than false glory and that he was in fact an Aussie (born just outside Sydney)! I have since come to recognise Richard as one of the greats of the last 50+ years of malaria science.

Scientists today, myself included, regularly feel the weight of having to discover something new. To find a patch of research that can be tinkered with that hasn’t already been over-worked. Previous generations, reported through the vast exponentially growing literature that we all struggled to wade through, have often done most of the key discovery work and whilst we try and innovate by throwing million-dollar machines at questions, the reality is we are often just checking boxes or adding a bit of tinsel to what was already known. In recent years it is remarkable how many times my lab found that it was Richard who was more-often-than-not there first – the giant on who’s shoulders we stood. Suspended animation buffering of parasites, the role of complement in antibody fixation or linkage selection, ideas we stumbled on were often Richard’s brainchild. A real innovator, he was often way ahead of his time and not just in one area but across malaria science. Countless times in lab meetings we’d have a “great idea” only for Richard to say – “Yes we tried this back in 198x…”. The foundational work Richard completed will I am certain continue to be the basis for future discoveries for many decades to come. And where Richard was considered a maverick? Well, I am quite confident that he will end up being recognised as being right in the end – whether best vaccine target or the truth of a process in parasite biology.

However, beyond this excitable, brilliant, tenacious, and somewhat irreverent man, the Richard that I came to consider a true friend these last few years was a deeply kind man. This was reinforced greatly with stories and testimonies from friends and family at his funeral. His kindness was always on display when discussing ideas with students at lab meeting or in our own conversations. As a thinker he was humble – always finding numbers to back anything up, never over-stating his ideas, and often his own worst critic. And he was generous with praise for others too, as is testified so often in his wonderful 2-volume memoir. He mentored so many in our community and leaves a tremendous legacy of students behind that owe just as much to his care and kindness as to his brilliance or intellect.

The last time I saw Richard his illness had taken away much of his physical vigour. But his sharpness, wit and wonder were still very much intact. We discussed the wood-wide web, the mycelium network that links up life in the forest, his piano playing, his global journey through Australia, Scotland and the US, and he showed me his handiwork through model boats. He really was a polymath, limitless in curiosity. I will miss this Richard deeply as will members of my lab, past and present. Our comfort is in knowing that the work Richard started, the legacy gifted to us, is far from over, there is still much to do in malaria science and the ultimate goal of malaria elimination or eradication is still elusive. So, in his memory, we gather our strength for this great challenge that does still lie ahead.


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