Key people

The foundation of the Microbiology Society was laid in 1943 at the Annual General Meeting at the Society for Applied Microbiology. It was decided that the time had come to promote the advancement of microbiology by forming a Society that would provide common meeting ground for those working in the various specialised fields. Learn more about the key individuals who helped to shape its foundation here.

Key people

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      Sir Alexander Fleming

      Founding member and first President of the Microbiology Society (1945-1947)

      The Microbiology Society was formally inaugurated on 16 February 1945, at a meeting of Original Members in London. Sir Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) was elected as the first President. The Society had its origins in the (then) Society of Agricultural Bacteriologists: a number of members of that society had wished to see a broadening of its interests and scope beyond agriculture, to embrace virology, medical and agricultural bacteriology, protozoology and mycology. The idea was to bring members from different backgrounds together to gain the benefits of interdisciplinary discussion and learning from each other. This aim of the founders is still, after more than half a century, central to the ethos of the Microbiology Society. It underlies the growth of the Society, from 241 Original Members, to its present position as the largest microbiological learned society in Europe.

      Fleming was born on 6 August 1881 at Lochfield, near Darvel, Ayrshire, Scotland. Following his school education he worked in a shipping office for 4 years, enrolling at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in Paddington in 1903 on the suggestion of his elder brother Tom. He qualified with distinction in 1906. Fleming was asked to join the research department at St Mary's where he became Assistant Bacteriologist to Sir Almroth Wright, a pioneer in vaccine therapy and immunology. He gained a BSc with Gold Medal in 1908 and became a Lecturer at St Mary's until 1914.

      In 1909, he developed a medium for isolating the ‘acne bacillus’ which led to the successful treatment of cases with vaccines. Shortly after, he began the work on the new drug Salvarsan for the treatment of syphilis. This marked the beginning of chemotherapy and Fleming’s lifelong interest in the investigation of chemical antiseptics in the treatment of infection.

      Fleming served throughout World War I as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Following World War I, he actively searched for antibacterial agents, having witnessed the deaths of many soldiers from sepsis resulting from infected wounds and, in 1921, he discovered lysozyme, which he always considered more important than the discovery of penicillin. He was elected Professor of Bacteriology of the University of London in 1928.

      By 1927, Fleming was investigating the properties of staphylococci. On 3 September 1928, Fleming returned to his laboratory having spent August on holiday with his family. Before leaving, he had stacked all his cultures of staphylococci on a bench in a corner of his laboratory. On returning, Fleming noticed that one culture was contaminated with a fungus, and that the colonies of staphylococci that had immediately surrounded it had been destroyed, whereas other colonies farther away were normal. Fleming grew the mould in a pure culture and found that it produced a substance that killed a number of disease-causing bacteria. He identified the mould as being from the Penicillium genus, and, after some months of calling it ‘mould juice’, named the substance it released penicillin on 7 March 1929. He investigated its positive antibacterial effect on many organisms, and noticed that it affected bacteria such as staphylococci and many other Gram-positive bacteria.

      Fleming was modest about his part in the development of penicillin, describing his fame as the ‘Fleming Myth’ and he praised Florey and Chain for transforming the laboratory curiosity into a practical drug. Fleming's accidental discovery and isolation of penicillin in September 1928 marks the start of modern antibiotics. He also discovered very early that bacteria developed resistance whenever too little penicillin was used or when it was used for too short a period. For this reason Fleming cautioned about the use of penicillin in his many speeches around the world, warning people not to use the antibiotic unless there was a properly diagnosed reason, and if used, to ensure the proper dosage was taken and for the proper length of time for the antibiotic course.

      By the late 1940s, he increasingly spent much time away from the bench, delivering lectures and receiving numerous honours, including the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945 and a knighthood. Ever eager to try anything new, he used phase-contrast microscopy to study Proteus vulgaris and produced evidence to support the traditional theory of flagella being regarded as the organs of motility in bacteria.

      His first wife, Sarah, died in 1949. Their only child, Robert Fleming, became a doctor. In 1953, he married his second wife Amalia, a Greek colleague at St Mary's. Fleming had a heart attack and died at his home in London in 1955. He was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.

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    • Marjory Stephenson

      Marjory Stephenson FRS

      Founding member and former President of the Microbiology Society (1947-1948)

      Marjory Stephenson FRS (1885-1948) was a member of the inaugural committeee and co-founder of the Microbiology Society.

      She had a fundamental role in establishing the Society it's in very early days and was responsible for giving it the original name: The Society for General Microbiology despite suggestions to name it "The Leeuwenhoek Society for the Study of Living Things." Her contributions to shaping the Society led to her being unanimously elected as its second President in September 1947. 

      Her career as a biochemist started at University College, London, working with R. H. A. Plimmer. She there studied the lactase of intestinal mucosa and showed that this enzyme was inhibited by glucose but not by galactose . She turned next to the synthesis of esters of palmitic acid and then worked on metabolism in experimental diabetes. This work was interrupted by the 1914-18 war, during which she served with the Red Cross in France and at Salonika.

      After the war she returned to Cambridge and worked in the department of Frederick Gowland Hopkins on the fat-soluble vitamins (Stephenson & Clark, 1920; Stephenson, 1920). Hopkins in his wisdom encouraged her to leave the fields of animal metabolism and vitamins and to initiate a comprehensive study of the biochemical activities of bacteria.  She analysed the steps in the development of research in the field of bacterial metabolism, and pointed out that research took place at a series of levels. Together with Margaret Whetham and Juda Quastel, she developed the washed suspension technique, which had originated with Louis Pasteur, for extracting enzymes from bacteria.

      Following Marjory Stephenson's death in 1948, members of the Committee felt that such a distinguished pioneer of both the Society and Microbial Biochemistry should be commemorated. It was decided that a fund should be set up in the form of an endowed memorial lectureship with the hope that such a tribute would inspire nominations from individuals that had made exceptional contributions to the discipline of microbiology.  Thus the first of the Society's named lectures came into being with money being raised by soliciting subscriptions. By 1953 a sufficient number of finances had been accumulated to establish the Marjory Stephenson Memorial Lecture.

      Marjory Stephenson Obituary Notice


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      Muriel Roberston FRS

      Founding and Honorary member of the Microbiology Society

      Muriel Robertson (1883–1973) was a protozoologist and bacteriologist at the Lister Institute, London, from 1915 to 1961. She was one of the founding members of the Microbiology Society and served as a Council member from 1945 to 1948. The Society made her an Honorary Member in 1962, and on her 80th birthday in 1963 she delivered the Marjory Stephenson Memorial Lecture.

      Muriel was born in Glasgow and graduated from the University of Glasgow with a Master of Arts in 1905. She was known for her work on trypanosomes, studying trypanosome infections in reptiles in Ceylon and Trypanosoma brucei gambiense in Uganda. She became a Doctor of Science at the University of Glasgow in 1923 after writing her thesis on the ‘life histories of certain trypanosomes’. She worked at the Lister Institute in London from 1915 to 1961.

      Muriel was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1947. She was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and the Institute of Biology and a member of the Pathological Society, the Society for Experimental Biology and the Medical Research Club. She became an Honorary Doctor at the University of Glasgow in 1948.

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      Leslie Alfred Allen

      Founding member and first Joint Honorary Secretary of the Microbiology Society

      Dr Leslie Alfred Allen (1903–1964) was a dairy bacteriologist who helped found the Society for General Microbiology with Ralph St John-Brooks. Together they enlisted the support and fostered the necessary enthusiasm among a wide range of microbiologists in forming a Society that covered various disciplines of microbiology.

      Leslie Alfred Allen was born in 1903 and received his education at Portsmouth Grammar School and the University of Reading, graduating with First Class Honours in Chemistry in 1925. Over time his research began to range from animal feeding-stuffs to milk, hence his work became more related to microbiology and to dairy products in particular. For nine years he was a lecturer at Reading University, being appointed to an Independent Lectureship in Agricultural Bacteriology from September 1930.

      In 1939 he was appointed to the staff of the Water Pollution Research Laboratory of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research at Watford, where he worked for 14 years on the various aspects of water bacteriology, covering water treatment, sewage and trade wastes. In 1953 he left government service for the research department at the food supplier Tate & Lyle, where he worked on producing a food yeast.

      Leslie Alfred Allen Obituary Notice


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      Ralph St John-Brooks

      Founding member, first Joint Honorary Secretary and Honorary member of the Microbiology Society

      Dr Ralph St John-Brooks (1884–1963) was a bacteriologist who played a crucial part in the foundation of the Society for General Microbiology. Alongside Leslie Alfred Allen, St John-Brooks became the first joint Honorary Secretary of the Society in 1945. He served as a member of the Committee of the Society until he retired in October 1946. In recognition of his valuable services he was nominated by the Committee for election as the Society’s first Honorary Member.

      Ralph St John-Brooks was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated with first-class honours in Natural Science in 1904. He was a specialist in Bacteriology, with rank of Captain, at the County of London War Hospital, Epsom, from 1915 to 1919, and at the Royal Army Medical College, Millbank, 1919-20.

      In 1920 he was invited by Sir Charles Martin, FRS, to become Curator of the National Collection of Type Cultures at the Lister Institute. The Collection was formed mainly from strains collected by members of the Institute’s staff, and many came from the Diagnostic Laboratory of the Institute under John Ledingham, the Chief Bacteriologist. It was sponsored jointly by the Lister Institute and the Medical Research Committee (later Council). St John-Brooks remained in this post until his retirement in 1946. During his Curatorship he was largely responsible, with Robert Earl Buchanan and Robert Stanley Breed, for developing the International Bacteriological Code of Nomenclature.

      Ralph St John-Brooks Obituary Notice
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      Sir Arnold Ashley Miles FRS

      President 1957–1959

      Arnold Ashley Miles (1904–1988) was born in York and read medicine at Kings College, Cambridge. As an undergraduate, he developed what proved to be a life-long interest in pathology. His clinical training at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, at a time when infection was rife and treatment almost entirely non-specific, centred his interest on the mechanisms in microbe and host which could account for the initiation of symptoms, their variety and for the outcome of infection.

      During World War II, the Medical Research Council (MRC), at the Government’s request, set up the War Wounds Committee to devise preventive methods, not only in the field and base hospitals but which would also be applicable to civilian hospitals that received air raid casualties and which were not subject to strict discipline. Ashley was a member of this committee and became Director of the MRC Infection Unit at the Birmingham Accident Hospital from 1942 to 1946. He collaborated with Wylie McKissock and Joyce Wright and they published the first controlled experiment of methods to reduce wound infection in hospital. He also devised simple experiments which nurses could perform to demonstrate to their own satisfaction that apparently clean sites could be heavily contaminated.

      In 1946, he moved to the Department of Biological Standards where he was Director from 1947 to 1952. In 1952, he left this post to become Director of the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine and Professor of Experimental Pathology at the University of London, appointments which he held until retirement in 1971. He is famous for his simple method of performing viable counts of bacteria and for his co-authorship of William W.C. Topley and Graham S. Wilson’s Principles of Bacteriology, Virology and Immunity, begun when Topley died in 1944 and continued to the 7th edition published in 1984. The results of his studies on inflammation and the prevention of infection are, however, the most important parts of his outstanding contribution to medical microbiology.

      In 1961, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society, where he served on many committees and became Biological Secretary and Vice President from 1963 to 1968. He was an Honorary Member of the Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1953, he was appointed CBE and, in 1966, he was knighted. Sir Ashley Miles died a month before his 84th birthday in 1988.

      Sir Arnold Ashley Miles Obituary Notice


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      Bert Cyril James Gabriel ‘Gabe’ Knight

      Founding member of the Microbiology Society.

      Bert Cyril James Gabriel ‘Gabe’ Knight (1904–1981) was best known for his pioneering work in bacterial nutrition. An Original Member of the Society, he was also elected Honorary Member and served the Society as an officer continuously for 27 years, longer than any other person in its history. In 1946 he was appointed Joint Editor, alongside Arnold Ashley Miles, of the new Journal of General Microbiology (now Microbiology). The first volume appeared in 1947 and he remained an Editor of the Journal for the next 23 years.

      Born in 1904 in Reigate, Surrey, he was educated at Reigate Grammar School and University College, London, where he graduated with a BSc in chemistry in 1925 and an MSc in 1927.

      In the early 1940s Knight was seriously concerned that microbiology was not regarded as a separate and unified discipline, that there were no courses for teaching it in the UK., and that there was no central meeting place in the UK for the wide variety of practising microbiologists. He believed, as did many others, that the ‘grave subdivisions of the subject’ had been brought about by the importance of the different fields of application, and the teaching and study of the different microbial forms as parts of different disciplines, e.g. algae and fungi as parts of botany, bacteriology in medical schools, viruses with plant and animal pathology, protozoa as part of zoology.

      His concern and his activities associated with these matters contributed significantly to the founding of the Society in 1945 and of the Journal of General Microbiology in 1947, and to his appointment in 1951 as the first Professor of Microbiology in the first university Department of Microbiology in the UK at Reading University. He participated in the preliminary discussions which led to the Inaugural Meeting of the Society in February 1945. At this meeting Sir Alexander Fleming was elected the first president of the Society and Knight was elected with 10 others to membership of its first committee.

      Bert Cyril James Gabriel Knight Obituary Notice


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      Henry James Bunker

      President 1952–1955

      Along with Marjory Stephenson and Paul Fildes, Henry Bunker was one of a small group that met together before 1940 to discuss the formation of the Society. When the Society was founded in 1945, Henry became its first Treasurer. As well as his term as Society President, he was elected to serve on the Council for two further periods, 1957–1960, and 1963–1967, after he had retired from the Presidency. The Society made him an honorary member in 1967.

      Henry Bunker (1897–1975) was born in London on 27 April 1897 and educated at St Olave’s Grammar School. He returned after World War I to St Catharine’s College, University of Cambridge, to take a degree with botany as the principal subject. On leaving Cambridge, he took up his first professional position, as Assistant Bacteriologist in an Admiralty research organisation, the Royal Naval Cordite Factory at Holton Heath in Dorset.

      During World War II, at the instigation of both the Medical Research Council and the armed forces, Henry worked as part of a group of scientists headed by A. C. Thaysen on a project to supersede cellulolysis and the sulfur bacteria. Widespread malnutrition was, quite correctly, expected as a result of the war, and one of the first installations for preparing a food yeast on a pilot scale was set up at Teddington. The potential of microbes as protein sources intrigued Henry and the topic remained one of his major interests for the rest of his career.

      Henry was an influential and respected figure in the learned societies associated with microbiology. He was President of the Society for Applied Bacteriology, a Fellow of the Institute of Biology and its President from 1967 to 1969, he was the first Chairman of the Microbiology Group of the Society of Chemical Industry, Fellow of the Institute of Food Science and Technology, of the Royal Society of Medicine and of the Royal Society of Arts. He played an important part in the organisation of Brunel University, and Brunel recognised his contributions, both to the University and to science, by conferring upon him an Honorary Doctorate of Science in 1969. He died on 8 August 1975 at the age of 78.

      Henry James Bunker Obituary Notice


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      Sir Christopher Andrewes FRS

      Christopher Andrewes (1896–1987) began his career as an assistant resident physician at the Hospital of the Rockefeller Institution in New York City, where he stayed for two years. Having decided to pursue a research career in virology, a field in which he spent nearly 40 years, Christopher joined the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council at Hampstead in North London in 1927, where he worked on the role of viruses in transmittable tumours in animals.

      Between 1930 and 1933, while working at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), Christopher and two other men, Patrick Laidlaw and Wilson Smith, researched and identified for the first time the human influenza virus, type A. From 1946 to 1960 they tried to isolate the virus in the laboratory.

      Christopher went on to found the World Health Organization's (WHO) World Influenza Centre based at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR). He was Deputy Director of the NIMR from 1952 to 1961. Among the many academic honours he received were the Stewart Prize of the BMA, the Robert Koch Gold Medal, a honorary LLD from the University of Aberdeen and a honorary MD from the University of Lund. He was knighted in 1961. He died in 1987.

      Read his obituary

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      Kenneth Manley Smith FRS

      Founding and Honorary member of the Microbiology Society

      Dr Kenneth Manley Smith FRS (1892–1981) was a pioneer of plant and insect virology. He was best known for studying the relationships between viruses and their vectors and was among the first to realize that viruses differed in their vector relationships. He was co-opted on to the committee which was responsible for founding the Microbiology Society and served on the Committee of the Society from its inauguration in 1945 until 1948. The Society made him an Honorary Member in 1972.

      Born in 1892 at Helensburgh near Glasgow, Kenneth Smith was educated at Dulwich College, the Royal College of Science and Manchester University where he was awarded an MSc in 1922 and a DSc in 1926. In 1927 he joined the newly formed Potato Virus Research Station at Cambridge, where he became a Director in 1939. He realized that potato viruses were not restricted to potatoes and that there were many viruses of other hosts; therefore he changed the name to the Plant Virus Research Station. Subsequently it became the Plant Virus Research Unit and, finally, the Virus Research Unit of the Agricultural Research Council. Among the viruses he discovered were the cytoplasmic polyhedrosis group and Tipula iridescent virus; the former group has been named Smithia after him. He developed methods for using viruses for the biological control of insect pests. He also carried out extensive ultrastructural studies on the viruses using the electron microscope.

      Kenneth Smith was a prolific writer. As well as a large number of scientific papers he wrote many textbooks on virology. His wide knowledge of the biological characters of plant viruses and the numerous viruses that he was first to describe is shown in A Textbook of Plant Virus Diseases first published in 1937; he entirely revised it in 1973 when he was more than 80 years old and it still remains a standard text. He wrote several books successfully popularizing the science of virology. He was a co-editor of Advances in Virus Research from 1953 until his death and was on the editorial board of several journals. He was made a CBE in 1956. 

      Kenneth Manley Smith Obituary Notice


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