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Dr Tony Stebbing, BSc (Hons), PhD - In Memoriam

6 July 2020

Dr Anthony (Tony) Stebbing sadly passed away on the 2nd May from Covid-19 following a prolonged illness. Tony was aged 78 years and is survived by his wife Valerie.

Picture of Tony Stebbing

After completing his PhD from University College Swansea, he obtained a Research Fellowship at the Marine Biological Association UK, Plymouth. In 1971 he joined the Institute for Marine Environmental Research (now Plymouth Marine Laboratory - PML). It was at PML where he spent most of his scientific career, before becoming an Emeritus PML Fellow, and then the first Director of the Centre for Climate Change Impact Forecasting (C-Clif). C-Clif was a joint project between Plymouth and Exeter Universities and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and was opened in 1999 to monitor the effects of the weather in Cornwall and Devon.

Tony’s interests included the development of bioassays to detect the harmful effects of environmental pollutants. His later discovery of the stimulatory effect (hormesis) of low concentrations of many toxic substances contributed significantly to a renaissance in this field of research. Hormesis describes how tiny amounts of substances that would normally be toxic at higher levels can have a beneficial effect on organisms at the cellular level. The phenomenon was known in ancient Greece and later revived in the 19th Century, but fell out of favour having been associated with the discredited homeopathy. Tony Stebbing, being a bit of a ‘renegade’, re-investigated hormesis and showed that unlike homeopathy its effects could be scientifically demonstrated and repeated. It is true to say that Tony’s work was a catalyst for further research in this area. Subsequently, the science of hormesis has become an important arena for the development of hormetic drug treatments and other therapeutic applications; as well as being of considerable research interest in the fields of cell signalling pathways and nutraceuticals.

Environmental pollution was another of Tony’s interests.  He contributed significantly to the international acceptance of biological effects assessment, and monitoring for the adverse effects of environmental contaminants. In particular, he shared his knowledge and insight through his membership of UK Governmental Committees, the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas Working Group on the Biological Effects of Contaminants (ICES-WBEC) and the United Nations Group of Experts on the Effects of Pollution (GEEP – UNESCO-IOC). Throughout his career he was at the forefront of discovery. He jointly organised a GEEP Research Workshop under the auspices of UNESCO-IOC & ICES at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven in 1990. This ground-breaking event saw the in situ testing of a wide range of molecular, biochemical, cellular and pathological biomarkers in fish, in conjunction with various ecological tests for diversity in the North Sea. The outcome of this Workshop contributed meaningfully to the eventual implementation of a number of these tests in international Pollution Assessment Programmes around the world.

One of the most significant projects Tony worked on was the Land-Ocean Interaction Study (LOIS). At the time it was the largest NERC-sponsored Thematic Programme to date, and the most ambitious and comprehensive marine airborne remote sensing campaign undertaken in the UK. This six-year project, which Tony led from PML, brought together around 360 coastal researchers from 11 NERC institutes and 27 Universities, contributing through more than 70 collaborative projects. Its aim was “to quantify fluxes of materials from freshwater catchments to coastal seas, and to advance understanding of the processes which control those fluxes”. This area of research was to become a mainstay of PML’s interest and expertise well into the future.

In 2011 he achieved one of his life-long ambitions with the publication of his book “A Cybernetic View of Biological Growth, The Maia Hypothesis”.

Professor Mike Moore, a long-term colleague and friend of Tony Stebbing knew the scientist and the man: “Tony was a highly respected biologist, as well as a true friend. Despite his many scientific achievements, Tony was a modest man with a self-deprecating sense of humour, easy smile and an enthusiasm for life. He frequently kept his colleagues entertained with his anecdotes. He will be sadly missed by his friends and colleagues, however, his legacy of achievements as a highly skilled and knowledgeable environmental biologist and toxicologist, has been passed on to the wider scientific community and to the many younger colleagues who had the pleasure of working with him over the course of his career.”

Professor Nicola Beaumont, now Interim Head of Science for PML’s Sea and Society group, was one such early career scientist he took under his wing. “He was my PhD supervisor, back in 1996-2000, and afterwards was a wonderful mentor. He was a fabulous man, intelligent and gentle, and he always acted with integrity and honesty. Tony was an inspiration to me. He applied for the funding for my PhD, this was the first NERC/ESRC PhD and one of the first examples of cross research council interdisciplinary working. It was this PhD that first brought social science to PML. He will be much missed.”

Tim Fileman, Technical Manager for PML Applications Ltd., was another scientist whom Tony encouraged: “I remember Tony as a real gentleman. He was always kind, helpful, encouraging and polite, whether you were just starting out on your career, as I was, or whether you were a well-established scientist”    

Professor Mike Moore: “Tony was a true gentleman with very broad intellectual interests, as well as being one of my oldest friends and colleagues for almost 50 years. We worked together on many occasions, as well as having a number of joint scientific publications. I have many enjoyable memories of the times spent working with him at various places around the world, as well as in Plymouth. I will always cherish those memories, and will miss him greatly.”

Sadly, Tony is gone, but he will live on in the memories of everyone who had the pleasure of knowing him and collaborating with him.