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Piers Nye ResearchGate1946 – 2021

In piam Memoriam

All members of the Department will be saddened to hear of the death of Piers Nye, Emeritus University Lecturer in Physiology and Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College. 

Piers Charles Gillespie Nye came up from Marlborough College to read Agriculture at Oxford in 1965. He moved to UC Davis to study under the eminent avian physiologist Ray Burger from 1969-1977, where he won the prestigious Carlsson Prize. He returned to Oxford in 1977, funded by the Medical Research Council, and later the Wellcome Trust from 1983, where he worked initially with R.W. Torrance before running the lab (Room 3, now the Szele Lab in Sherrington building).  He played a dominant role on the international stage in our understanding of the physiology of the arterial chemoreceptors between 1984-1989, before he switched his interest to pulmonary hypoxic vasoconstriction.

Piers Nye at UC Davis circa 1972© Piers Nye at UC Davis circa 1972Piers was made a College Lecturer in Physiology at Balliol College 1984-87, and then a University Lecturer in Physiology and Tutorial Fellow in Physiological Sciences at Balliol from 1991-2011. From 1993 until 2011, he coordinated the Physiological Sciences undergraduate course, where he was a passionate advocate.   He continued his teaching beyond his retirement in 2011 to lecture in physiology to Human Sciences students and gained a loyal following.

Throughout his time in Oxford from 1978 onwards, Piers actively promoted access to the University by state school candidates, especially those from schools with little or no history of applying to Oxbridge, speaking at official Oxford University Access Events.  In 2015, he was recognised with a Teaching Excellence Lifetime Achievement Award from the University of Oxford Medical Sciences Division for his ‘high quality and sustained commitment to education demonstrated throughout his career.’

In recent years, Piers remained a champion of his former students’ achievements – for DPAG’s campaign marking the 2020-21 centenary of women’s full membership of Oxford University, “Women in Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics”, he contributed by far the most nominations to highlight the successes of the diverse women he has taught over the years.

Many of my colleagues and associates have written to me and wished to share their memories of Piers and his contributions to teaching and research.

“So, so saddening to hear this news. Piers was an amazing tutor who was universally loved by all of his students at Balliol. His tutorials were engaging, and he truly cared, encouraged and supported all of us through our time at Balliol and well beyond through our careers. He was certainly an inspiration for me in pursuing both research and teaching, as well as just becoming a medical doctor. His teaching, approach and questions will live on in generations of students, as will the memories of frequent Lebanese meals with him at Al-Shami.” (Neil Herring, Associate Professor and BHF Senior Fellow, and Tutorial Fellow of Exeter College)

“Such sad news. He was my lodger when I first moved back to Oxford in 1969 and we’ve been friends ever since. Such a kind and caring person who lived for his students.” (John Stein, Emeritus Professor of Physiology)

“How very sad. He was in the lab next to me when I worked with Charles Michel and was so kind.” (Mary Phillips, former Departmental Demonstrator and Research Fellow at DPAG, former Director of Research Planning for Biomedicine, UCL)

“Very sorry to hear about Piers passing. I remember Piers was always very interested and kind to me despite my lowly student status - I recall having a great chat with him about many things including racism on the way back from a Physiological Society meeting - he was ahead of his time! May he rest in peace.” (Gavin Blake, Professor and Consultant Cardiologist, University Hospital Dublin)

“I am sorry to hear of his passing. It may be before your day, but one of Piers’ party pieces was to do a magnificent recitation of Peter Cook’s Tramp on a Park Bench piece!” (Stuart Judge, Emeritus Reader in Physiology)

“I'm so sorry to hear of Piers's death. Piers and I were colleagues at Balliol for some years before he became a fellow and again after I came back to the college. He was a very special person and a very good teacher.” (Gillian Morriss-Kay, Emeritus Professor of Developmental Anatomy)

“This is very sad news indeed. A grey day has just got darker.” (Peter Kohl, Visiting Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology)

“It’s sad to think I won’t see Piers again.  Piers and I shared an office in Ray Burger’s lab at UC Davis those many years ago — he was a friend, a good scientist, and a true character.  I’m sure we all have Piers stories to tell.  My favourite goes like this:

            I received a review of a manuscript submitted to Respiration Physiology that said, amongst other things, that “The paper was written in a conversational, almost 19th Century style.  I half expected to be told that, 'at that moment Prof Barcroft entered the lab and we decided to retire to the local public house for a beer and a pilchard sandwich'.”  Although I did not know at the time who wrote the review, I considered it complimentary (my colleagues were shocked).  The next year in a lecture at an ATS meeting Piers passed me a note “Care to go for a beer and pilchard sandwich?”.

            I visited Piers in Oxford about 20 years ago and he was a gracious host - I remember going to The Trout, amongst other pubs. Unfortunately, when I was last in Oxford about 6 years ago, Piers was not feeling up to getting together.  I was hoping to see him next year when I attend the international Dyspnea Society meeting.  Alas, it’s not to be.” (Robert Banzett, Associate Professor of Medicine, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard)

“I met Piers when I started graduate school at University of California, Davis in 1974. He was the senior member in Ray Burger’s laboratory when I arrived and Bob Banzett left for a postdoctoral fellowship with the Coleridges at UC San Francisco.  Piers showed me the ropes in both research and teaching labs and his approaches helped me succeed throughout my career.

Piers and Frank at UC Davis© Frank L. Powell with Piers Nye at UC Davis            Piers could be the life of the party in the Physiology graduate group, drawing on his experience as a Shakespearian actor at a local theater he partly owned and making an impression with his British accent. I know he was disappointed to be teased for an American accent on his return to Oxford!

            I was lucky to visit Piers several times in Oxford, where we got to work and play. We did experiments with Bob Torrance, some extending late into the night with Chris Peers, and later David Paterson.  Like many of our colleagues, we got to travel and meet at scientific conferences, where we debated the meaning of new results and designed experiments while enjoying food and drink in a local pub.

            But my best memories of Piers are from times I spent with him and his family. From scaling Skellig Michael to enjoying tea in their sun room; looking for inns to accommodate Oscar on roller blades and running for cover from the rain at the Blenheim Palace horse show with Hamish and Rosie.  Piers was a true physiologist and a great friend.” (Frank L. Powell, Ph.D. Professor of Medicine Emeritus University of California, San Diego)

“A sad loss indeed.  I'll always remember how he fought the corner for non-medical physiology, which at times shrank to a level where someone wanting to economise might have struck against it - not least when it was seen as outmoded by the fashion for molecular genetics as an end rather than as the means.  That we now have a strong physiology course owes a lot to his campaigning.” (Stephen Goss, Emeritus Fellow and Tutor in Medicine)

“Indeed, so, Stephen. What Bayliss called "General Physiology" needs to be restored in biology. We owe a lot to what Piers defended.” (Denis Noble, Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology)

“Piers was "Room 3" to all of us that had the exquisite opportunity to work under his guidance. I moved into the corridor desk soon after DJP moved upstairs, and I still vividly remember peeking around the corner for the first time into his small hazy office jammed from floor to ceiling with papers and textbooks, where he sat with his signature dishevelled hair in-front of his computer. The layout of Pier's small but incredibly historical and productive lab, along with the sound of the rhythmical clicking of the respirator valve during experiments is permanently engrained in my mind. When he wasn't conducting experiments and mentoring in the lead lined chamber at the back of room 3, he was sat at his desk, writing papers, code, or preparing lectures for his multiple classes. First one there in the morning, last to leave almost every day of the week. He was always a favourite with his students, and like all things, he put his heart and soul into his teaching. 

            Piers was humble, and he expected that from all of us, even though he had every right to feel proud of his remarkable talents which extended beyond ULP, and for how he played a significant role in shaping the early careers and development of many including Chris Peers, Colin Cook, David Paterson and myself.  He will be deeply missed by all that hung out in Room 3 and in his classrooms.” (Blair Robertson, DPhil 1992)

“This is very sad news indeed. I was very fond of Piers. The first scientific papers I read in earnest in preparation for starting my DPhil were the Paterson & Nye classics on carotid body chemoreception in the cat, a field towards which my Dublin mentor (Ronnie O’Regan, also sadly recently deceased) had pointed me.

            His laboratory on the ground floor was a special place - it was like an Aladdin’s cave! Operating table in the centre, no natural light, faint whiff of tobacco, homemade gadgets and gizmos everywhere. A place where real science was done. He was in his element in that environment and also during the FHS animal physiology demonstrations on Friday afternoons in Trinity term. He lived for the students.

            Piers was the internal examiner for my DPhil viva in August 1995 and certainly gave me a very good grilling. Apart from the intellectual rigour, I knew it was an Oxford viva because he pulled me up on my misuse of present and past tenses in my writing. His attention to detail has stuck with me since and I have passed it on to many others. The brilliant eccentricity of Piers is an increasingly rare commodity; universities and academic departments (and hospitals) are much the poorer for it. 

            Long may his memory continue in the Physiology building and in the thousands of students on whom he had a formative influence during their University years.” (Professor Mark O’Neill DPhil FRCP FHRS Consultant Cardiologist & Professor of Cardiac Electrophysiology Guys and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust (GSTT) Department of Cardiology at GSTTSchool of Biomedical Engineering and Imaging Sciences at King’s College London Joint Clinical Director – Cardiovascular)

Piers Nye in the Burger lab, 1977

Piers was certainly a one off, the likes we will probably never see again in the Department.  He was passionate about social justice and took an active role in the university and wider international community as a member of the Physiological Society, Balliol Medical Society, Amnesty International Jewish Voice for Peace, and Greenpeace.  But it was his dedication to his undergraduates who adored him, and his pride in those who had worked with him in Room 3, that set him apart. 

He was an outstanding experimentalist and I was fortunate to experience his joint supervision of my D.Phil in the mid 1980’s. His cat carotid body experiments went long into the night, and donation of other material from the cat to his colleagues (T. Powell and G. Cooper) underpinned several major advances.  He worked long hours, survived on Mrs Jones pies with baked beans from the café, black coffee and Marlboro fags.  If experiments went well there was always time for a pint at one of the many Jericho pubs or a visit to Al Shami the next day. 

He loathed pretence, dressed down (unless dressed as a pumpkin at the annual ULP Xmas party), had an infectious smile and wicked sense of humour.   When I joined Room 3, it was a little powerhouse of activity and fun – a fantastic environment to be a part of, which he created.  I was so fortunate.  Room 3 failed every aspect of health and safety based on today’s standards.  You would gain entry via a lathe and drill press, which Chris Hirst would be working on.  The ultimate technician, he decorated the room with stuffed birds and various other animals.  As Mark says, it was an Aladdin’s cave that reflected Piers’s personality. Every student was encouraged to make some equipment for their experiments and contribute to the cave. 

Piers was an outstanding fibre picker for single unit recordings from the carotid body, and if the historical tapes ever get replayed, the over dubbing voice of him would always begin the experimental recording with ‘ok sports fans’…. with date and time etc etc).  We had great respect for him, he was immensely loyal and dedicated to his pupils no matter what stage of their studies.   He was immensely proud of the diving reflex (into ice cold water) he demonstrated on me that almost stopped my heart (10 bpm) in an undergraduate class.   Real physiology!  A champion of the discipline whose legacy is defined by those he trained and tutored.  Indeed, he was of a generation who understood what it meant to be a tutor.  I already miss him.  A great loss.  (David Paterson, Department of Physiology, Anatomy & Genetics).

[postscript.  Rosie has said, at Piers request, there will be no ceremony, but the family plan to have a celebration of his life at Balliol in the summer]

Ballol Flag at half-mast for Piers Nye

The Balliol College flag flying for Dr Nye at half-mast.

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