The legacy of Robert Sykes

Redwood Comment
Published:  13 February, 2019
Dr Mike Redwood

It is twenty-seven years since the late Dr Robert Sykes retired. He died last October at the age of 89 and was remembered on February 11 at a luncheon in London. He started his studies in leather at Leeds University around 1947 and graduated after a PhD in the early 1950s. He went to work in Africa and then returned to the UK and became head of Science at Leathersellers College in London.

Listening to Peter Ellement, who we remember as Head of the BSLT, it is clear that Dr Robert (Bob) Sykes placed research as high on his priority list as teaching. This is describing very much the Bob Sykes we knew: someone with a brilliant research mind and a dynamic personality, yet someone who always supported young entrants into the industry.

There is another train of thought here. As Sykes was getting the industry ready for the scientific method and the proper use of statistics, the industry was still working with sperm oil and formaldehyde without an inkling of knowing the problems they were creating. It was only in the late 1960s that we started to realise and act upon the issues around whale populations and much later for other chemicals such as formaldehyde. This is not because the leather industry was misbehaving or dragging its heels but because no one knew the problems at the time. The leather industry, in the main, reacted as fast as it could.

We need to remind ourselves that the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) in the U.S. was only set up in December 1970 “in the wake of elevated concern about environmental pollution.” By that time Dr. Sykes’ was already well into his new role at the then BLMRA (British Leather Manufacturers Research Association). What we can say looking back was that the environmental matters arose on his watch and he was equal to the task. He helped the industry separate the true science from the hysterical opinions and to prioritise and deal with each and every one.

Of course, during his time European tanning capacity, especially in the north saw wholesale closures in line with the geographic shift of labour intensive leather using industries such as footwear and clothing. Yet his skills were not localised, and he shared his knowledge and his thinking in assemblies and conferences all round the world.

It was in the late 1960s at Leeds University, where I first met Bob Sykes, and at the 1971 IULTCS conference in Prague, he and his wife took me in hand to ensure that I met all the senior people and was never left out. In 1978 I travelled with him on the three-week trip to Argentina and Brazil to attend my first ICT Conference, and he openly shared his knowledge as we travelled around tanneries and to events in both countries.

After he retired, he still helped the International Council of Tanners (ICT) for some time and in 1994 he asked me to speak on the subject “Leather as a brand” at the ICT Conference in Hong Kong. My talk went down well, was published in the major leather magazines and picked up by some of the top tanners present. Bob had brilliantly highlighted on a subject that the industry had never considered, but one which has been consuming us ever since.

And as his University contemporary, George Donath, former Managing Director of Stahl UK, said at the lunch Bob was part of a most friendly industry, one where people help each other, and it is important to remember and maintain that.

Dr Robert Sykes (second from the left)

I met him over the past two years ago and his mind was as sharp as it was when he entered the industry. When we talk of leather as a sustainable material and argue today that we have a material worthy of generic promotion we need to give thanks to the dedication of fine individuals like Dr. Robert Sykes OBE.

Dr Mike Redwood

February 13, 2018

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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George Donath, former Managing Director of Stahl UK speaking at the lunch