Member careers: Vivian Moses

Issue: Zoonotic diseases

05 November 2015 article

MT Nov 2015 member careers vivian moses

Towards the end of World War II, I was studying for my Higher School Certificate, the equivalent of A-Levels. I was keen on chemistry but that had caused a bit of a mess at home so I turned to biology, instead bringing home frogs and earthworms for dissection. With lots of enthusiasm for both subjects, I decided to combine the two when it came to thinking about a career.

Before starting university, and having passed the necessary exams, I continued at school 2 days a week and worked for three as a lab assistant at the Express Dairies on London’s Euston Road. There I spent 9 months as assistant to a lady who sampled foods and food-processing machines, checking for microbial contamination. That gave me a good grounding of the main microbiological techniques before I went up to Cambridge in 1946 to read Biochemistry.

Cambridge was the only university at that time that offered an undergraduate Biochemistry course. The first 2 years focused on chemistry and physiology. The third year was devoted entirely either to animal or to microbial biochemistry: I was offered a place on the microbial course and so became a microbial biochemist.

It was not possible for me to begin a PhD immediately. National Service was still in force at the time: like other science graduates, my obligation would be fulfilled if I found a job ‘of national importance that used my science degree’ and held it for 2 years. So, with official approval, I became a lab scientist with J. Lyons (now Allied-Lyons PLC). The lab building was in Hammersmith Road near Olympia; I was in microbiology while upstairs in chemistry worked someone called Margaret Roberts (now better known by her married name of Margaret Thatcher) but I can’t say I knew her.

Cream for ice cream was not then readily available so the product was based on partially liquefied flour. To prepare that, Lyons were buying in amylase but wanted to generate their own supply; my first project was to find how best to do so. Later I developed a replacement procedure for a disposal unit to remove residual fermentables from the waste water coming from Lyons’ food products factory at Greenford before being discharged to the sewers; the system then in use was running at low pH and the equipment had become badly corroded. My aim was to develop a higher pH procedure for use in a rebuilt tank; I completed the development just before I left to begin my PhD at University College London (UCL) and heard later that it had indeed worked.

I was awarded my PhD in 1953 and stayed on at UCL for 3 years as a Junior Lecturer. Then I was very fortunate to secure a postdoc with Melvin Calvin at the University of California in Berkeley, joining his group on photosynthesis research (for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1961) and other metabolic problems. After 2 years there my visa expired; I returned to the UK to another two-year postdoc on aspirin and rheumatism with Mervin Smith at King’s College Medical School.

Tenured academic science jobs were difficult to come by in Britain in 1960: the first round of new universities were founded only in the early 1960s. So, when Calvin invited me to return to Berkeley on a permanent basis as a research director, I did so, concentrating first mainly on metabolic compartmentation and later on microbial enzyme synthesis, particularly catabolite repression of the lac operon system in Escherichia coli.

Including a sabbatical year (1967–1968) in Oxford spent with Joel Mandetstam and Michael Yudkin, I stayed in California until 1971 but eventually felt I would prefer to be in the UK and was fortunate to be appointed Professor of Microbiology at Queen Mary College. I held that position for 22 years (retiring in 1993), gradually moving towards biotechnology which has, indeed, kept me very busy in the years following retirement.

Highlight of my career

Perhaps the most exciting point in my career was my postdoc in California in 1956–1958. UCL was fine but it was nowhere near as lively as the Berkeley lab. Calvin was a very vigorous director who was an inspiration to us all; he always wanted to talk to everyone and all the members of that large multidisciplinary group of at least 30 people were interested in what everyone else was doing. Some possible research line might come up and that very day we might start to explore with colleagues who wanted to join in. There was enough funding so we could just ask for access to a chemical or piece of equipment. That was a most exciting environment for someone coming out of the rather darker England of the late 1950s.