75 years on: a brief update on the history of the Microbiology Society

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05 / 05 / 2020

In 1995, former President John Postgate wrote a history of the Society for General Microbiology entitled 50 Years On which covered the founding of the SGM, as it was usually referred to, and he described in some detail many of its activities. The members voted to rename the Society in 2015, and in 2020 the Microbiology Society celebrates its 75th anniversary.

As part of those celebrations, we asked former President Nigel Brown to dig into the archives, speak to long-standing colleagues and make new friends, as he uncovered the history of the Society over the last 25 years.

“The Microbiology Society is not an end in itself,” says Nigel, “It is a membership organisation, so if you want to understand the Society’s history, you need to look at what it has meant for some of its members. Most of us know the journals, meetings and grants, but these have all changed markedly since 1995.”

The Society’s activities

Journals

The Society’s journals are an important part of our vision, as well as being a valuable source of income. In 1995, there were just two titles, Microbiology (which had changed its name from the Journal of General Microbiology in 1994) and the Journal of General Virology. In 1997, the Society successfully bid to publish what became the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, the journal of record in microbial taxonomy. From January 2004, the Society took over publication of the Journal of Medical Microbiology from the Pathological Society.

The Society launched two new open access journals: Microbial Genomics in 2015 and Access Microbiology in 2019. This last journal is an important development, allowing, among other benefits, publication of repetition studies, negative or null results, additions to methods, posters, and Case Reports. Interestingly, publishing a journal on genomics was first suggested to Council in 1997, but was not acted upon at the time. A second suggestion in 2011 was taken forward.

Although the majority of our journals have Editorial Boards of experienced microbiologists, Access Microbiology is unique in using early career microbiologists, mentored by an experienced editor. This will help develop the next generation of editors and hopefully help to ensure the sustainability of our publishing activities for the future.

Journal publishing remains the largest single source of income for the Society. As Nigel Brown points out, “It allows us to make grants and contribute to conference expenses for speakers and student attendees. In 2013, one university instructed its staff to publish only in a certain subset of journals. Sadly, the Society’s journals were not among them. As President at the time, I wrote to the Vice-Chancellor enquiring whether the university intended to replace the Society’s funding for its PhD students’ attendance at conferences. I never received a reply.”

Meetings

Prior to 2001, three scientific meetings were held each year, and different interest groups of the Society would organise sessions in one or more of these meetings around New Year, Easter and Autumn. In 2001 this was reduced to a Spring and Autumn meeting. “These meetings were held in universities, where older members could relive their lost youth by staying in student accommodation!”, comments Nigel. Only in 2008 was the first meeting held at a conference centre.

In 2013, the decision was made to move to a single Annual Conference in the spring, with additional Focused Meetings on specific topics suggested by members. Although they were initiated on a trial basis, these Focused Meetings have proved to be popular and have been retained. In addition, the Early Career Microbiologists’ Forum now organises its own Summer Conference, the first being in 2018.

“One of the attractions of campus university meetings was that nearly everyone met in the bar in the evening,” says Nigel, “and that is not possible in conference venues”. Consequently, there has been a deliberate attempt to foster interactions. Early career members can attend a social event the evening before the conference programme starts. “They also meet with some senior microbiologists,” says Nigel, “and discover that we are all interested in microbiology, irrespective of apparent status!”

Recent changes to the Conference agenda include having early career microbiologists act as co-chairs for the scientific sessions, the provision of crèche facilities for members with young children, and inclusion grants for those with carers’ responsibilities, allowing them to attend the Conference. At each Conference since 2016, delegates have been asked to make suggestions on what the Society should start doing, stop doing or keep doing. This has provided useful feedback and has been acted upon.

When we moved from Reading to London in 2014, the Society initially decided to try outsourcing much of the organisation of the Annual Conference. “This didn’t really work,” Nigel commented. “Something as important to the identity of a Society as its Annual Conference cannot be produced by outsiders, however good they are.”

Communication with members

As a membership organisation, the Society needs to be able to communicate with all its members. In 1995, there were about 5,000 members, the number fell in the late 1990s and then more than recovered, so now it is nearer to 6,000. In the early days, communication with members was in print – through letters and a magazine, The SGM Quarterly, which had been running since 1973. In 1999 the magazine became Microbiology Today, and it continues to provide information about the Society and about microbiological issues to members. It has won prizes for design and content as a house/membership magazine.

The Society’s first website was in 1997, and the current version is now an important source of interaction with members – it had over a million hits in 2019.

A Twitter account was opened in 2009 and a Facebook account in early 2011. Twitter was used from 2013 to 2016 to discuss papers appearing in the Society’s journals. The Society’s Twitter account (now @MicrobioSoc) started with 180 followers and currently has over 44,000!

Communication with the public

The Society’s mission is “Advancing the understanding and impact of microbiology by connecting and empowering communities worldwide”. Nigel wisely points out, “This cannot be met by only talking to ourselves”. Members are encouraged to engage in outreach and resources are available to assist them. A summer school for teachers was first run in 2002 and microbiology practicals for schools were developed with the help of a research assistant at the University of Nottingham. Subsequently, a PhD student was funded at Manchester Metropolitan University to develop novel laboratory-based microbiology activities. The Society also supports the Microbiology in Schools Advisory Committee (MiSAC), which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019.

Stand at the Chelsea Flower show

Nigel recalls, “To bring the importance of microbiology to a wider audience, the Society attended the Chelsea Flower Show focusing on plant–microbe interactions, winning Silver medals in 2005 and 2006 and a Silver Gilt medal in 2012”. We also highlighted the problem of antimicrobial resistance, and a play, Stopping the Spread of Superbugs, was produced in 2012. We worked with a US-based initiative, leading to a four-year programme (2014–2018), ‘Antibiotics Unearthed’, in which 17 universities liaised with local schools on projects looking for new antibiotics. In 2018, the Eden Project invited the Society to take an Antibiotics Unearthed Citizen Science event to its Invisible Worlds exhibition.

The Society’s communications team have good interactions with the media, and we are approached on a regular basis by TV and newspaper reporters to comment on microbiological topics of public interest. Nigel commented, “Issues such as antibiotic resistance, TB, Ebola and ‘flu have received significant input from members, but none more so than COVID-19!” Arcane topics, such as the microbiological hazards associated with spa baths, mattresses or handshakes have also been covered!

External communications on policy

The external activities of the Society have taken many forms in addition to communication with the public, particularly communication with policy-makers. The Microbiology Awareness Campaign (MAC), started in 2002, aimed to promote the understanding of microbiology and the important role of microbiologists to parliamentarians, opinion-formers, and policy-makers. The Society also produces two-page briefing documents on topical microbiological issues, such as TB, measles, polio, swine ‘flu, antimicrobial resistance and the role of micro-organisms in climate change. In 2011, an expert panel was recruited to develop a Position Statement on Food Security and Safety. Once published, this led to a meeting with the Government Chief Scientific Adviser organised by the Food Standards Agency. A policy statement on sexually transmitted infections was launched at the House of Commons in March 2014. “Our hosting MP, Dr Julian Huppert, tabled an Early Day Motion to highlight the research challenges raised in the document,” says Nigel. An associated play for schools about condom use, entitled If it’s not on, it’s not on, was specially commissioned by the Society. In January 2018, the Chair-Elect of the Policy Committee gave oral evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology about the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy.

Working with other societies

The Society has had many interactions with other societies over the years. The overarching body representing all biologists in 1995 was the Institute of Biology (IoB), to which the SGM was affiliated. In due course, the Society became a Member Organisation of the Society of Biology (now Royal Society of Biology).

The Society has been a member of the Federation of European Microbiology Societies (FEMS) since the latter’s foundation in 1974, and has supported FEMS directly for several decades, hosting the FEMS office until it moved to Delft in 1998. In 2001, the Society joined the Federation of Infection Societies and has supported and helped organise its conferences since 2005.

Member benefits

In addition to our publications, conferences and meetings, there are several benefits that membership of the Society confers. Some stories of the effects that membership has had on individuals appear in this and the next issue. “These are personal benefits that came up in my conversations with some of our successful microbiology colleagues”, says Nigel, “However, even those who do not go on to a career in the discipline may benefit from the opportunities to give poster presentations or talks, to network with their peers or to understand work on policy or public engagement.”.

Grants

There is a number of grants available to members to attend conferences and meetings, to travel to collaborators, to supervise summer students and to undertake outreach or education activities. Conference grants are available for Postgraduate Student and Full Concessionary Members. More recently, Society Conference Grants have been made available for members with childcare or caring costs. In the mid 2000s, over 350 grants were given annually to attend the Society’s two meetings. Currently about the same number are awarded to attend the Annual Conference, with a high success rate for applications. Grants are also available to attend our other meetings, other conferences or even to organise conferences. Eligible members can also apply for FEMS grants. Science teaching or science promotion can be supported through Education and Outreach Grants. “Members who are research supervisors can apply to take a summer student into their lab on the popular Harry Smith Vacation Studentship scheme,” says Nigel, adding, “the Vacation Studentships were renamed in 2011 to honour my predecessor, Harry Smith, who was President from 1975–1978.”

Prizes
Microbiology Society Prize Medal

Prizes are available to members, and others, at several career stages, including a young microbiologist’s prize and prize lectures awarded to distinguished microbiologists. In 1995 these awards were known as Named Lectures and have since been re-designated as Prize Lectures. Until 2007, it was possible for members to self-nominate for a Prize Lecture. All Prize Lectures are selected by a sub-committee of Council and given at the Annual Conference. Prior to 2013, the lectures were distributed across the Society’s meetings. There have consistently been only a small number of nominations for these prizes, and a prize will not be awarded if no suitable candidate is found. Since 2018, members of Council cannot nominate individuals for prizes, thus reducing potential conflicts of interests.

The Sir Howard Dalton Young Microbiologist of the Year competition is run before the AGM in September when finalists, selected from the poster presentations at the Annual Conference and an Irish Division Meeting, each give a short talk. The talks are judged by a small group from the Professional Development Committee and the Divisions. This originated from the Young Life Scientist of the Year competition, run across several societies, with an internal selection competition. This was subsequently sponsored by and named after the company, Promega, which changed the rules in 2002. The Society’s competition became the Young Microbiologist of the Year. In 2009, the competition was named after Howard Dalton, a former President.

Further reading

Society for General Microbiology – Fifty Years On

Microbiology Society Journals

Microbiology Today

Microbiology Society Strategy 2018–2022.

Microbiology Society grants and prizes

Member stories

The Microbiology Society does not operate in isolation. It is a membership organisation, overseen by and driven by its members. So, as an adjunct to this brief history, this is a section to highlight some members and stories of how the Society has supported their careers.

David Blackbourn (joined 1987). As a PhD student, the Society funded him to attend a Bacillus conference at Asilomar, California, where he met Roy Doi. This opened up a postdoctoral opportunity working on simian immunodeficiency virus at University of California (UC), Davis, leading to six years’ work on HIV and KSHV with Jay Levy at UC, San Francisco. The Society has been very supportive of him, his students and postdocs. David was on Council from 2007 to 2013, serving as General Secretary from 2009, which taught him a lot about leadership and administration. He worked with Simon Festing on a new strategy for the Society in 2012, and with Hilary Lappin-Scott and Nigel Brown on making significant changes to the Society, including the move to London from Reading.

Laura Bowater (joined 2008) has been a member of both the Education Committee and the Communications Committee, and was previously Editor of Microbiology Today. These roles allowed her to build her network of national and international contacts and helped her to develop a career as a teaching-focused academic. Her editorial duties improved her editing skills and made writing easier, but also helped her establish her reputation en route to becoming Professor of Microbiology Education and Engagement. Laura’s work was also recognised by the Society when she was awarded the 2019 Peter Wildy Prize.

Nigel Brown (joined 1974) remembers sitting next to Professor Pat Clarke FRS at a meeting and her being interested in discussing his PhD work. As a new lecturer, he presented his early research results at a Society meeting in 1980 and received excellent feedback. In a more senior role, meetings were an opportunity to catch up with colleagues and also enabled his students to present their work. When at the BBSRC, he discussed the BBSRC Review of Microbiology with the Society’s Chief Executive. The Review was instrumental in the reorganisation of the Scientific Conferences infrastructure. After leaving BBSRC, he served the Society on a Division, on Council and as President.

Tadhg Ó Cróinín (joined 1999) has found the Society to be a huge source of support throughout his career. From his first presentations at an Irish Division meeting as a PhD student, to watching his own students get the same opportunity years later, he’s been impressed by how supportive members are of each other and particularly of early career microbiologists. The Society funded undergraduate summer projects in his laboratory and provided a meetings environment where he could meet others at the same career stage, developing collaborations, celebrating success (and occasionally drowning sorrows). Meeting more senior and experienced colleagues was inspirational and knowing they faced similar challenges in their careers was helpful. The sense of community and generosity between members is the main reason he is proud to be a member and to support the Society in any way he can. This led him to seek the position of Chair of the Professional Development Committee and member of Council. He considers the Society’s dedication to supporting its members’ personal and professional development and the vibrancy of the community that it has built to be its greatest strengths.

Amy Pickering (joined 2012) received a Society Research Visit Grant during her PhD, which allowed her to visit a lab in the US for three months, giving her valuable insight into a different working environment. The Society also supported her attendance at a conference at which she was nominated to organise and co-chair a Gordon Research Seminar in August 2019. Amy was a founding member of the ECM Forum, serving as its first Conference Representative and is currently Chair (2019–2021).

Ian Roberts (joined 1985) was a member of Council 2001–2004 and Treasurer 2017–2020. He won the Fleming Prize in 1994 and has said winning has had a significant positive influence on his career, as did being on the Editorial Board of the then Journal of General Microbiology. Members first embarking on their careers, including Ian at the time, were involved in organising sessions in meetings, which enabled the development of skills outside the lab.

Karen Robinson (joined 2000) was an elected member of Council 2009–2012 and was the Chair of Scientific Conferences Committee 2016–2017. Karen’s experience on Council allowed her to understand more about committee structures, which proved helpful when utilising her skills later chairing the Nottingham Medical School Postgraduate Research Committee.

Nicola Stonehouse (joined 2000) started her research career as a technician undertaking a part-time PhD on tooth enamel development and inorganic crystal growth. She moved from inorganic crystals to structural biology of bacteriophages and moved into virology as a postdoc, MRC Career Development Fellow, lecturer and professor. As a member of the Virology Division, she met and interacted with a new group of virologists, but also met other microbiologists, deepening and broadening her understanding of microbiology. She still believes that the Annual Conference is the place to meet colleagues across UK virology, consolidate existing collaborations and explore new ones. The Society funded an outreach grant, allowing her to set up teaching resources in Bangladesh, which is an ongoing activity. She has found her service on Council (2016–2019) and interaction with Society staff to be both rewarding and enjoyable.


Images: Microbiology Today through the years.

The Society stand at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2012.

The first Prize Medal awarded to Stanley Prusiner in 2009.