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Professor David Ellar (1939 - 2020)

  • 23 May 2020

David Ellar

The College is deeply saddened to hear of the death of Life Fellow and Biochemist Professor David Ellar on 21 May 2020. He passed away peacefully at home aged 80.   

David became a fellow and college lecturer at Gonville & Caius College in 1968 and a Director of Studies in Medicine in 1993. His University roles included University Demonstrator in Biochemistry (1968), University Lecturer (1972), University Reader in Microbial Biochemistry (1993), and from 1999, Professor of Microbial Biochemistry. He became a Life Fellow of Gonville & Caius in 2007.

David’s research concentrated on four aspects of the molecular biology and biochemistry of aerobic sporulating bacteria (Bacilli) and especially their membrane-active toxins. These topics are: (a) the biochemistry and molecular biology of Bacillus spore dormancy and spore germination, (b) the structure, synthesis, molecular genetics and mode of action of insecticidal (Cry and cyt) bacterial toxins produced by Bacillus thuringiensis, (c) the design and construction of anti-tumour immunotoxins utilising bacillus toxins, (d) the molecular analysis of virulence factors in pathogenic members of the Bacillus cereus group. He was also interested in music, writing, painting, and wine – a passion that saw him become the College’s Wine Steward.

Professor Simon Maddrell, Caius Life Fellow and Emeritus Honorary Professor of Integrative Physiology, said, “I knew David well from involvements in nearly all he did, be it science, investments, the arts, dealing with Caius alumni or just because it was so pleasant being with him.

“My research centred on insect epithelia, especially the equivalents they have to kidneys, called Malpighian tubules. Together, David and I concocted the idea of using his bacterial toxin – see b) above - to see what effect it had on my insect tubules. The results were fascinating and we came up with a ‘rain drop’ model to explain why if we exposed the tubules to the toxin for a very specific time, the tubules were unaffected, but exposing them again so that the total exposure was now a little longer – even though an hour or so had passed – immediately the tubules stopped functioning. Our conclusions combined both our interests and we continued our collaboration over many enjoyable lunches in college.

“We served for years on the College’s Investments Committee. David was very good at asking simple logical questions about what we were doing in a way that made it clear to all of us what the real situation was and how we could hope to improve our strategy.

“One of David’s passions was wine – and everything to do with running the college’s cellars. He was an exceptional Wine Steward, with a palate that meant he could come up with utterances like  ”I am getting liquorice and pepper, tobacco and a hint of cherries and ripe plums” and be exactly right, whereas I had to strain to get more than a pleasant feeling from the wine. The result was that the College came to possess a wide range of wines for dining in college that many Caians have enjoyed.

“Another standout memory of my time with David was a visit to Twickenham for the annual Oxford – Cambridge rugby match in December with a group of Caians who had been kind enough to donate very generously to the college. It was splendid to meet so many Caians that we remembered from their younger days, but my happiest memory was that we had paused by a notice proclaiming that here was The Main Cellar. We wondered what the contents of their cellar would be like. But then I realised that the words ‘Cellar’ and ‘Ellar’ are very similarly constructed and so I got David to cover over the ‘C’ in Cellar and took a photo of before and after to amuse ourselves – see attached.”

Simon’s recollections capture David’s dedication to the college and his academic and personal contributions to our community. Many Caians will remember David with great affection as their Supervisor or Director of Studies. He was a “brilliant teacher”, whose “dry wit and humour made supervisions always fun and interesting”, and above all a “lovely man” and “excellent supervisor” who “inspired” others to love biochemistry and academic medicine as much as he did.

David was a much-loved member of Caius. The College offers its condolences to his family, and all his colleagues, friends and students around the world.

The David Ellar Studentship Fund at Darwin College

The David Ellar Studentship fund at Darwin College was started with a most generous legacy gift from David's PhD student, Donna Seto-Young (Donna was a PhD student at Darwin College) and her husband, KC Young.

The David Ellar Studentship fund is used to support a PhD student at Darwin College in biological sciences, and the first student commenced her doctoral studies in 2019.  It is hoped that in time it will become an endowed fund so that there will be holders of the David Ellar studentship at Darwin in perpetuity.

Donations to the fund can be made by contacting the Development Director at Darwin College (Samuel Venn,, or online on this giving page: 

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