Professor Samuel John Martin: a tribute

14 May 2024

Sam Martin 2009.jpg

The Microbiology Society is saddened to hear of the death of Professor Samuel (Sam) Martin, former Council member and editor of the Journal of General Virology, who died in April. The following obituary is provided with sincere thanks to Bert Rima, Professor Emeritus at Queen’s University Belfast and Dr Patricia Martin, Glasgow Caledonian University.

Sam Martin was born on 28 December 1936 in Belfast where he went to Sullivan Upper school in Holywood and studied chemistry at Queens University Belfast. In 1964 he moved from Belfast to work in Pirbright at the Institute for Animal Health (IAH). Here he worked for 3 years successfully with Fred Brown FRS on the replication of Foot and Mouth Disease virus. In 1967 he returned to Belfast to become a lecturer and later reader in the Department of Biochemistry. In 1981 he got a personal chair in Gene Biochemistry. He continued his interest in enterovirus replication with his colleague Dr Liz Hoey, but he started to study measles virus with his colleagues in the Microbiology Department led by Professor Kenneth Fraser. In Belfast there was an interest in measles because colleagues in the Neuropathology Department, most prominent of whom was Professor Dame Ingrid Allen, had discovered that subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, a rare but always fatal disease, was caused by a persistent measles infection. In 1974, I joined Sam’s group to start working on persistent infection and the molecular biology of measles virus.  In the same year, Sam went to spend a sabbatical year with Volker ter Meulen in Würzburg, Germany, and established a connection between the Belfast and Würzburg labs that lasted for over 4 decades.

On his return in 1975 we continued to work on the molecular biology of measles virus and we started to use genetic manipulation technology to study replication and develop the laborious techniques to sequence the major genes of measles and later canine and phocine distemper virus with Louise Cosby and finally expanded this with a collaboration with Tom Barrett at the IAH on rinderpest virus to strengthen the long connection he had with IAH. In 1981,  Sam and Kenny Fraser published a book “Measles virus and its Biology”.

In 1987, Sam became the head of the new School of Biology and Biochemistry, a difficult job to bring a string of previously disparate departments together into a single school.  His friendly and open personality allowed him to complete this successfully in 1995. He retired in 1996.

Sam served the activities of the then Society for General Microbiology (now the Microbiology Society) as member of the Virus Committee, as editorial board member for the Journal of General Virology and as member of Council from 1985-1990.

Sam was an optimist and with a sunny disposition and keen to do practical work in the laboratory. As an ardent angler (always needs optimism) he was very keen on the outdoors and the environment. His optimism and disposition with severely challenged when in 1976 a bomb abandoned by the IRA badly damaged his family home in Belfast. In the later years he spent a good deal of his time in Donegal with his wife June and always accompanied by his dogs. Sam was a creative person. He wrote several science fiction books and after suffering a stroke in 2011 a memoir of his own struggle to restart reading entitled “A stroke of Luck”. He also liked to paint in oil expressing his love for flowers and our natural environment.

Sam died on 10 April 2024 at the age of 87 survived by his wife June and his three children Patricia, John and Allen and their spouses and four grandchildren. To me the family always seemed a happy bunch and they organised a fitting tribute to his life on 18 April, when we said goodbye to a friend of many and mentor for me. It was a privilege to know and work with him and I thank him for helping me substantially in my own career.


Bert Rima, Professor Emeritus at Queen’s University Belfast