75 years on: a brief update on the history of the Microbiology Society: Part 2

Issue: Fleming Prize Winners

20 October 2020 article

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 Society and he described in some detail many of its activities.

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 previous article, published in the May issue, focused on the last 25 years of the Society’s history and looked at the activities of the Society and the member benefits, and how these had evolved over time. In the second part of the history, we look at the changes in the Society’s name and location and how its governance has changed over the last 25 years.

The Society’s name and location

The Society was originally called the Society for General Microbiology when it developed from the Society of Agricultural Bacteriologists in 1945. There was reported to be a “lively discussion” about the title, and that eventually chosen was to indicate that the new Society would cover all aspects of microbiology, not just bacteriology. At its formation on 16 February 1945 it had 241 members. A month later, the remaining members of the Society of Agricultural Bacteriologists created the Society for Applied Bacteriology, which became the Society for Applied Microbiology in 1997.

The meaning of the word ‘general’ has evolved over time. In 1945 it was chosen as meaning ‘all-embracing’. However, these days it tends to mean ‘non-specific’. The appropriateness of the title was queried at Council meetings in 1998, 2003 and 2007. On these occasions it was agreed to maintain the title as it was a strong brand. However, disquiet about the title did not disappear and was occasionally mentioned by those external to the Society, with media and government personnel wondering about the significance of having ‘general’ in the title. In 2013, the Society’s new logo was designed in such a way that any change of title could be accommodated. Council decided on a new title in March 2015. At the 2015 AGM, 89% of members present or voting by proxy agreed to change the title to the Microbiology Society.

The President contacted the Presidents of other microbiology societies about the change of name and one American microbiologist responded with “Typical British arrogance – doesn’t mention which country it is!” but apologised when he realised the ‘reply all’ to his President’s email had been copied to our President! He was challenged to think of a suitable short regional name covering the UK and Ireland. The fact that the Society’s plans and documentation need to cover both the UK and Ireland is something that Council has had to be reminded about on several occasions – usually by our Irish Council members!

From 1992 to 2014, the Society was based at Marlborough House, Spencers Wood, near Reading. However, it was thought desirable to move to London to be more closely associated with other societies and closer to opinion formers. After some debate, Council agreed and in January 2014 the Society moved to Charles Darwin House (CDH) alongside the Biochemical Society, the Society of Biology, the Society for Experimental Biology, and the British Ecological Society. The vision was to create a biology hub to act as a focus for the various disciplines constituting biology. The sale of Marlborough House allowed the Society to purchase a significant share of CDH, and also to contribute to the purchase of a nearby building on Gray’s Inn Road to lease for meetings and to tenants.

In 2016 The Society for Applied Microbiology also moved to CDH, shortly followed by the British Mycological Society. However, the co-ownership agreement for the buildings and their management proved difficult and, for this and other reasons, the majority of societies agreed to sell the buildings. The societies rented or purchased properties nearby in 2019, so they could continue to collaborate without the legal and other complexities of individual charities managing communal resources. The Society moved to its current headquarters at 14–16 Meredith Street, London, in September 2019.

Governance of the Society

The Society has always been led by a President who chairs a Council composed of Officers and Elected members. The President in 1995 was Tony Trinci, who had been disturbed to note that there was not a single woman on Council in 1993/1994, a fact subsequently remedied by the election of Pat Goodwin. A positive effort was made to nominate more women to Council, resulting in 20% female membership by the end of Trinci’s term of office. In 2020, 40% of Council is female and it also includes the Chair of the Early Career Microbiologists’ Forum. Of 29 Presidents in our 75 years, only three have been female: Marjory Stephenson (1947–1949), Hilary Lappin-Scott (2009–2012) and Judith Armitage (2019–2021).

Council

© Wellcome Collection, The Society for General Microbiology archives Society staff and Council pictured at the old offices at Harvest House in 1991. 

Council has changed markedly over the last 25 years. In 1995 there was a membership of 21, comprising nine Officers and 12 Elected Members, rising to 24 with 12 Officers in 2004. In addition to the President, General Secretary and Treasurer, the Officers included the Editors of the Society’s journals, and Officers for International, Education, Professional Affairs, Publications, Meetings, and periodically a Treasurer-Elect. The Elected Members met separately before Council meetings in order to discuss the agenda items. By and large this worked well but could occasionally cause a major difference of opinion between the Officers and Elected Members. Meetings were crowded and held in a small meeting room at the Society’s offices in Marlborough House. Fortunately, at least in this context, meetings rarely had full attendance, with 13 apologies noted on one occasion!

Council discussed a wide range of business, including internal and external matters. Council had been very concerned about government funding for universities and the lack of representation of microbiology in the 1996 Research Assessment Exercise. The Chief Executive expressed his concern that a charitable organisation should not be engaging in such semi-political activities. However, the focus of the Society on policy issues started in 2002 with the Microbiology Awareness Campaign, which gave rise to the Lobbying Working Party in 2010 and was formalised as the Policy Committee in 2011.

© Wellcome Collection, The Society for General Microbiology archives Marlborough House, Spencers Wood, Reading.

Over the last 25 years there have been four Chief Executives, Hilary Bowers retired in 1996 after 13 years’ service, being replaced by Ron Fraser (1996–2011), Simon Festing (2011–2014) and Peter Cotgreave (2014–date). Each of these has been supported by an excellent staff.

In 2010 the effectiveness of Council was discussed, and it was reduced in size to 13 members, with six Officers and seven Elected Members. This was further modified in 2012 and now comprises three Executive members (President, General Secretary and Treasurer), six Chairs of Committees, and six Elected Members. Much of the routine business of Council is devolved to the Committees, with Council taking appropriate oversight as Trustee-Directors. A very competent staff is responsible for the complex day-to-day organisation of the Society’s affairs.

A shadowing scheme was introduced in 2018 so that an interested individual could experience Council’s work. This was successful in encouraging nominations and has been extended to all committees. 

The Committees of Council

In 1995, Council was served by the Treasurer’s, Publications, Meetings and Professional Affairs Committees. Currently there are Committees for Finance and Operations, Professional Development, Policy, Scientific Conferences, Communications, and Publishing, with each of the Chairs being members of Council, as is the Chair of the Early Career Microbiologists’ Forum. The Finance and Operations Committee is chaired by the Treasurer. In the early days the process of election of Officers and Committee Chairs was sometimes unclear, even to the person elected! From 2019 all such positions are nominated by the full membership, then shortlisted and elected by Council to ensure balance of representation and diversity. Members of the ECM Forum elect their Chair. Council initiated a review of its Committees in 2019 with a new structure from 2021 linked to the Society’s strategic objectives: Building Communities, Impact and Influence, and Sustainability. These are alongside the Early Career Microbiologists Forum, the Audit, Risk and Evaluation Committee and the Finance Committee.

As a membership organisation, the Society addresses the interests of early-career and mid-career members, in particular, through the Professional Development Committee. Although there is a membership subscription, the majority of our income comes from our journals, which are overseen by the Publishing Committee. In addition, our Policy Committee is responsible for supplying information directly to opinion formers, or in conjunction with sister societies, such as the Royal Society of Biology and the Society for Applied Microbiology.

In the 1990s, separate groups bid for and developed group symposia at the meetings. In 1995 there were 10 groups, namely: Cells and Cell Surfaces; Clinical Virology; Education; Environmental Microbiology; Fermentation and Bioprocessing; Microbial Infection; Physiology, Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics; Systematic and Evolution; Virus; and the Irish Branch. In 1999 there was a discussion of having a “Young Microbiologists’” group, but it was 16 years before the (more correctly phrased) Early Career Microbiologists’ Forum came into existence. In 1999 two new groups were formed: Clinical Microbiology, and Food and Beverages. In 2007 there was a review of meetings and the group structure. The outcome was that in 2008 the 12 extant groups were reorganised into four Divisions (Virology, Prokaryotic, Eukaryotic, and Education and Training) originally with a matrix of cross-cutting themes: Microbial Diversity and Evolution, Fundamental Microbiology, Translational and Applied Microbiology, and Infectious Disease. The Irish Branch remained unchanged. The Education and Training Division has been replaced by the Professional Development Committee’s input to meetings.

In 2016 the Early Career Microbiologists’ Forum was established, and an ECM member now sits on every committee. Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is an important part of the Society’s operation. Every Committee now has an EDI Ambassador, and these meet annually to ensure the Society is addressing EDI issues in all its activities. A member of each Committee takes responsibility for ensuring that international aspects of the Committee’s work are also taken into consideration.

Membership

Membership categories were reviewed in 1999, 2001, 2007, 2013 and 2017. The School and Corporate membership categories, introduced in 2001, were abolished in 2013 and separate categories of international membership were removed in 2017. There are now five current categories without geographic limit: Full Membership, Full Concessionary Membership (currently for those on incomes less than £35,000 a year, or equivalent), Postgraduate Student Membership, Undergraduate Student Membership, and Affiliate Membership for anyone from a low income country or just interested in microbiology and wanting to stay in touch. In addition, Council has elected a number of distinguished microbiologists as Honorary Members.

Honorary Members

Whereas originally the number of Honorary Members was limited to 20, this limit was lifted in 2007. The criteria have been regularly reviewed. In 1995, scientific excellence was the main criterion for election, but in 1998 service to the Society was also considered to be an important criterion (reverting to the original criteria for honorary membership). Twenty-four members have been elected as Honorary Members since 1995.

Presidents

From 1995 to 2020 there have been nine Presidents of the Society, six bacteriologists, two mycologists and a virologist. Two of the three women who have been Presidents of the Society since its formation (Marjory Stephenson, 1947–1948; Hilary Lappin Scott, 2009–2012; and Judith Armitage, 2019–present) served during this time. A similar tale can be told of mycologists (Percy Brian, 1965–1967; Tony Trinci, 1994–1997; and Neil Gow, 2016–2018).

The ‘running order’ of Presidents since 1995 is: Tony Trinci (1994–1997); Howard Dalton (1997–2000); David Hopwood (2000–2003); Hugh Pennington (2003–2006); Robin Weiss (2006–2009); Hilary Lappin-Scott (2009–2012); Nigel Brown (2012–2015); Neil Gow (2016–2018); and Judith Armitage (2019– present). Brief biographies and photographs are available on the Society’s website.

All Presidents are formally elected at the AGM, which used to be held during the Autumn meeting of the Society, and the new President took up post with immediate effect, officiating at the rest of the AGM and the meeting. This caused considerable confusion about who was responsible for different activities during the Autumn meeting, depending on the timing of the AGM. In 2014 the AGM became a separate event, independent of meetings, and in 2015 the decision was taken that the President and all Council and Committee members would serve an extra three months, from the September AGM to the end of the year, so that all new positions now start on 1 January following the AGM.

Conclusion

I have focused on only some of the many changes that there have been, and in terms of a history it is undoubtedly superficial and incomplete. The Society’s documents were lodged with the Wellcome Trust in 2015, but are not yet catalogued, and, even if I were capable, it is not yet possible to undertake a scholarly analysis of the recorded history. That may be a job for the Centenary! I am immensely grateful to current and former members of staff and current and former members of Council who have helped search for and supply information.

I also noted that the Society is primarily a membership organisation. Some of the influence that the Society has had on individuals are given in this issue and on the website. From my being a student member in 1974 through to today, it has been a signal honour for me to be a member of the Society and our community. I look forward to the Society’s future development.

50 Years On by John Postgate can be found on the Society website.

Nigel Brown


Honorary Member and President of the Microbiology Society 2012–2015


Member stories

The Microbiology Society does not operate in isolation and is overseen by and is for our members. In this section, we look at some of its members and what the Society has meant to them.

Evelyn Doyle (joined 1984) was Chair of the Irish Division (2006–2009), Scientific Meetings Officer (2011–2012) and General Secretary (2013–2016). She considers that being on Council taught her a lot about governance and project management when moving the Society to London. It allowed her to experience a management role before considering a senior role in her home institution. Chairing Scientific Conferences Committee was excellent experience in getting differing viewpoints to common agreement – a vital skill in her new role as Head of School. She proposes to take a new approach to developing her School’s Strategic Plan based on the ‘strip-back’ approach taken by the Society in 2012. Evelyn found the Society to be excellent for networking with a wide range of microbiologists within and outside Ireland. She has particularly enjoyed her involvement with the Irish Division, which provides a platform for microbiologists on both parts of the island to get together.

Beatrix Fahnert (joined 2003) was a postdoctoral researcher when she joined the Society to be part of the community and access the resources available. She particularly remembers receiving the membership directory which included the names of the microbiologists who had influenced her early and subsequent work. Having a particular passion for education, she uses the Society’s materials for teaching and outreach, points students and staff to the Society for career development support, and served on the Education Division and its successor, the Professional Development Committee, organising a number of conferences and giving several talks. This experience led to her being recruited as the Section Editor for Professional Development in FEMS Microbiology Letters.

Lorena Fernández-Martínez (joined 2002) was a second-year undergraduate geneticist at Swansea when she saw an advert for the SGM vacation studentships on a staff member’s door. She got the studentship with a year’s membership of the Society and has been a member ever since. That studentship started her down the track of working on actinomycetes, which she has continued, first as a PhD student in Swansea, next in industry, then as a postdoc at the John Innes Centre, and now as a Reader at Edge Hill University. She says that the vacation studentship started her down her career route, and that attending Society meetings annually has helped her build and maintain a group of friends and colleagues in her research area. She encourages her undergraduate and postgraduate students to join the Society. She served on the Communications Committee 2013–2019.

Pat Goodwin (joined 1979). As a new lecturer and Principal Investigator, the Society was a useful platform to discuss education issues and for her and her students to present their work. As Scientific Meetings Officer (1995–2000) she was exposed to a broad area of science and it expanded her professional network, which was very useful in her role at the Wellcome Trust. Following her retirement from Wellcome, she was again elected to Council and was chair of the Policy Committee (2013–2018) and helped drive forward key policy projects to help advocate for microbiology.

Dave Kelly (joined 1980). As a PhD student in the 1980s Dave’s supervisor (Crawford Dow) was Meetings Secretary of the Society and introduced him to several eminent international microbiologists, who gave inspirational talks at the Society’s conferences and which strongly influenced his later career. Dave’s first papers were published in the Journal of General Microbiology (now Microbiology) and he has since served two stints as Associate and Senior Editor for the journal. He is currently Reviews Editor for Microbiology. On Council (1999–2002) he was able to observe how Howard Dalton and John Beringer worked in committee. He was also involved in developing the Society’s strategy under Howard Dalton. Dave has been very grateful to the Society over the years for supporting several vacation studentships in his laboratory as well as numerous travel grants.

Kim Hardie (joined 1988) states that the Society was incredibly helpful in her personal and professional career development. It provided a strong network of friends and mentors/role models who helped her become more professionally ambitious. Through her work with the Society as an Editor, a committee and Council member, and a Committee Chair, she developed her skills, which was recognised by promotion in her home department. Work with the Society also led to senior roles in the Royal Society of Biology (RSB), as an RSB Council member, the Chair of the annual Higher Education Teacher of the Year competition and delivering the 2019 RSB Charter Lecture. At a personal level, she says that the Society helped rebuild confidence and contacts following maternity leave, that it gave her broader horizons. It provided introductions to public engagement and policy work and taught her a lot of communication skills.

Paul Hoskisson (joined 1997) worked in industry for a short time before his PhD. Working on antibiotic production, there were useful Society meetings that introduced him to the wider area, including meeting the important figures in the field. He considers the Society to be like a big family, comprising both members and staff, and it has been very supportive of him, his students and postdocs, including research visits and meetings grants. His chairing committees, editing Microbiology Today and serving on Council have been very helpful in his day-to-day job as an academic.

Arindam Mitra (joined 2016) is a Society Champion working on bacterial biofilms at Adamas University in India. As a Champion, the Society provides a platform for him to reach out to students and the public on relevant and timely microbiological topics and network. He reviews books and grants for the Society, as well as reviewing papers for the journals.