Recognising a legacy for the community – Professor Nigel Brown reviews ‘Second International Congress for Microbiology – London 25 July – 1 August 1936’

Posted on June 14, 2024   by Microbiology Society

In 2020 the Microbiology Society was generously left with an extensive, and wide-ranging selection of scientific works by long-standing member, Dr Bernard Dixon. Bernard was a well-known scientific communicator, perhaps most notably as the Editor of New Scientist in the 1970s.


We were honoured that Bernard chose to leave his rare collection to us and Council agreed that the majority would be sold to a specialist book collector. The revenue generated was donated to our Unlocking Potential fund, the first grants from which have gone on to ten microbiologists facing career-limiting challenges.

We retained a selection of the microbiology titles and recently invited Council members to select and review a book of their choice. We are releasing these reviews as a special series in recognition of all those who choose to leave the Society a legacy, as well as those who support our fundraising activity, including the Unlocking Potential Fund, in other ways.

We need the help of more people across our community to support others who might, in turn, one day provide solutions to global challenges. You can find out about leaving the Society a legacy or donating to Unlocking Potential or you can get in touch to talk to us about the Society’s fundraising activities.

In the third of this blog series, Council member and former President of the Society Professor Nigel Brown reviews the ‘Second International Congress for Microbiology – London 25 July – 1 August 1936’.

One of many books donated to the Microbiology Society from Dr Bernard Dixon’s collection was a rather dilapidated volume entitled ‘Second International Congress for Microbiology – London, 25 July – 1 August 1936’ containing the abstracts from the Congress.  It makes fascinating reading for several reasons.

First, the number of presentations – there were 353 presentations across the eight days given by authors from 32 different countries. Many authors were from known centres of research in capital cities or other places we would still recognise as centres for microbiological research.  But from the UK we also see presenters from Princes Risborough and Newton Abbott – not epicentres of microbiology these days.  Interestingly, of the 353 abstracts, 51 are in German and 31 in French. It is not clear if translations were available. 

I compare that with the recent Microbiology Society Annual Conference, where over four days of parallel sessions we had 329 abstracts of oral presentations from 28 different countries – all in English, fortunately!  There were also over 700 posters, often from PhD students.  The presenters came from well-established laboratories, often in large institutions.

Second, was the quality of the presenters.  Many went on to great things, including four Nobel Laureates. Three of these were in Physiology and Medicine, namely, Alexander Fleming (1945) for his work on penicillin, Max Therler (1951) for his work on yellow fever and Peyton Rous (1966) for his work on tumour-inducing viruses.  Hans von Euler had already received his Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1929 for work on sugar fermentation.  They all spoke about the work related to their Nobel Prize.

Looking at other names, many of the UK presenters became Fellows of the Royal Society. Others received fellowships and other honours in their own countries.  Sadly, some of the presenting scientists did not survive WWII.  F Eisberg (Krakow) was executed in 1942 at Belzec extermination camp and Eugene and Elizabeth Wollman (Paris) were killed at Auschwitz.

The third item of interest is the range of science presented - from general microbiology to specific treatment of infections.  This was only seven years after Fleming (the opening presenter) published his discovery of penicillin and few antimicrobial agents were available, many of which were toxic.  The discussions of infections made me realise how far we had come in terms of antimicrobial treatments and to what we might return as antimicrobial resistance spreads.

There were many indicators of the evolution of excellent science, such as the apparent crystallisation of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus. This indicated the relatively simple structure of viruses well before they could routinely be seen in electron microscopes.  Several techniques which would be regarded as commonplace these days were also presented, such as the preservation of bacteria by freeze-drying (HF Swift, New York).

Microbiologists today are heavily dependent on the work of the scientists who presented at this conference almost 90 years ago.  Will our impact on our successors be as powerful?

Review kindly provided by Nigel Brown.