When Brunel’s Professor in Ecotoxicology, John Sumpter, received his OBE from Princess Anne at Windsor Castle recently it was a rewarding culmination to a 40-year journey that began with his PhD thesis and led to increasing global awareness on the consequence of environmental pollution.
Now, one the world’s leading ecotoxologists, Professor Sumpter had first arrived at Brunel in 1978, aged 26, to cover for a lecturer in the Department of Applied Biology, becoming professor in 1991. He is an amiable, humane person whose very name at Brunel conjures up a combination of wisdom and sensitivity.
Recalling his early days on the campus, he reflected: “I was incredibly naïve. I really had no idea. I had done a PhD and one year of a postdoc. I did 66 lectures in my first year — I had never given a lecture before — and one in a subject I knew nothing about!
“I was extra busy in the evenings and at weekends for three or four years, preparing for next day’s lectures. Oh, and practicals,” he added.
In those days it wasn’t compulsory to do research. He remembers that his contract simply stated that he had to satisfy his head of department. “Only 10 per cent of staff were ‘research active’ and you only had to have one PhD student and publish every two years to fall into that category.”
Prof Sumpter is grateful that he had “two superb PhD supervisors” when he was a doctoral student at Bangor University studying marine zoology. “I know now that that is incredibly important. One was coming to end of his career and one was at his peak. I just didn’t realise at the time just how important those two people were. It’s absolutely crucial to have good supervisors.”
From locum lecturer, he became the head of the department for three years, and Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences for a year. He was promoted as the head of the newly-formed Institute for the Environment in 2006.
His extensive environmental research projects were all externally funded; he says it was a lot easier then, than today. “The success rate was much higher. It’s a much tougher ask now.” His research into hormones in fish could have fizzled out, but for what he calls “luck and serendipity.”
In the late 1970s the Department of Environment published a report stating that there were “some funny looking fish in the River Lea, a tributary of the Thames; reproductively odd, ‘intersex’ fish.”
“When I read that I realised that I had some experience in measuring fish hormones and that I had an expertise in something that nobody else in the world could do. Fortunately, it was a very interesting problem. I tackled it in a very logical and systematic way for about 20 years.”
Prof Sumpter set about investigating what was causing the problem, and found that the ‘funny looking fish’ were the consequences of chemicals that we’re putting into our rivers: industrial, plastics, pharmaceuticals, including female hormones from contraceptive pill, cosmetics, all of which added to the pollution. Mixed chemical pollution was one of the main subjects of his hundreds of research papers.
“Our lifestyles have led to all sorts of environmental effects. This was not realised at the time,” he said. “If we take an aspirin, isn’t it likely that a small percentage of it will end up in the river? Now, it’s obvious. But it wasn’t obvious to anyone just a few decades ago.”
Part of Prof Sumpter’s work has meant engaging the public to raise their awareness of contamination in the environment. He was involved with a special edition of the BBC science documentary series, Horizon, on a programme about decreasing male fertility, the amount of oestrogen in pollutants in the environment and their effect on the endocrine disruption of fish. Entitled Assault on the Male, directed by Deborah Cadbury, it was broadcast in 1993.
The episode won an Emmy, the first factual programme to do so, and it was given a special screening in the White House within a month of its transmission.
Professor Sumpter is frequent contributor to the media and has appeared on television in many countries, on radio, and in print.
As he moves on from researching the effect of environmental pollution on fish hormones and into other areas, what are his plans?
Displaying an academic how-to book, he says he is in the process of writing a friendly guide to “help, support, and advise young researchers” who are entering the world of post-graduate study.
It’s a place that is very different to the one he entered some 40 years ago. But having Prof Sumpter as your guide on that journey would be a great help.