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SEEN UP NORTH: Void in world of science


Tony Best

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In the second half of his life, when the elite biochemistry professor and inventor had emerged as a world-renowned expert in carbohydrate technology, Dr Rawle Hollingsworth never departed from the down-to-earth approach to life that was fashioned in the Bay Land area, St Michael, in Barbados.
Hollingsworth, who grew up not far from the place where Sir Garfield Sobers, the world’s greatest cricketer, learnt the game, “was first and foremost a university professor [who] enjoyed teaching”, Michigan State University said in a tribute.
“Rawle was always there for his students,” said Professor Tom Sharkey, chairman of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Michigan State. “He was also a great inventor who always spoke highly about Barbados.
“This incredibly brilliant scientist always found time for his students and for the people he met. His inventions, scholarly papers and keen scientific mind attest to his brilliance. He was one of the nicest people you could ever have called a colleague. Just as important, he was an entrepreneur who had an eye for the commercial applications of his scientific work.”
Dr Padma Kumar, a scientific colleague of the Barbadian for more than a decade, agreed.
“Rawle was certainly a well-rounded scientist and a world-recognized expert in carbohydrate technology who guided between 30 and 40 graduate students to their PhDs,” said Kumar, a chemist by training, from India. “He was a guru, a pioneer in carbohydrate technology. I have never met or heard of anyone with more knowledge about carbohydrates than Rawle.”
Kumar, a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, was one of Professor Hollingsworth’s closest colleagues at Synthon Chiragenics, a company founded by the Bajan.
“He was always bubbling over with ideas about things he wanted to do with the technology. His patents, his work with students and the companies he formed attest to his brilliance,” said the Indian scientist. “He was always talking about what he could do with sugar cane grown in Barbados and the rest of the Caribbean.”
Retired MSU science Professor Saleela Hollingsworth used different words to describe her husband, whom she met when they were both doctoral students at the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica.
“He lived for science, 24/7,” said Hollingsworth, who is from India. “Many people in and out of the world of science called him a genius. But he was an extremely humble person. Rawle didn’t care about awards but what drove him were his work and relationships with students, his family and others.”
Hollingsworth, a 55-year-old scientist and a graduate of Combermere School and the UWI, died from a stress-induced heart attack and pulmonary embolism on February 29 in East Lansing.
The son of Clement and Gwendolyn Hollingsworth, the expert biochemist managed to amass an unsurpassed record of scientific achievements, according to colleagues. It was a record which they say reinforced his standing as a world expert in his field. For example, he:
• was awarded about 40 United States and 20 international patents for inventions in medicinal chemistry, all based on his research in carbohydrate technology;
• developed a very efficient method for the preparation and manufacture of cholesterol-lowering drugs that saved lives and improved people’s health. It is estimated that the drug can have global sales amounting to US$4 billion;
• designed a process for making a rocket fuel that has attracted the attention of the US Defence Department in Washington;
• pioneered scientific research in his company’s laboratory that targeted materials which can be used in human drugs, implants and artificial tissue as well as for environmental, sensor and diagnostic applications;
• founded two research companies, Synthon Chiragenics Corporation and AFID Therapeutics, both at Michigan Biotechnology Institute. (The first developed and marketed his carbohydrate-based chiral technology for pharmaceuticals, saying, “If you can imagine it, we can create it.” AFID Therapeutics offered extensive libraries of chiral compounds that were based on carbohydrates); and
• published more than 200 scientific papers in highly respected academic journals in the United States and other countries.
“His work brought millions and millions of dollars into Michigan State and his success underscored his entrepreneurial zeal,” added Kumar.
Sharkey said the university was “excited about Hollingsworth’s inventions” because of their innovation and also “their commercial value”.
Hollingsworth did work on carbohydrates which can be found in the shells of lobsters and other crustaceans, insects and in crops like sugar cane.

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