This blog is part of the ‘Blog a Book project entitled: The Inside Story –– a history of the Microbiology Department (University of Otago) from 1950 – 2010. Blogs are usually shown in reverse chronological order (from newest to oldest). For a ‘Blog a Book’ the posts are changed to be chronologically displayed (from oldest to newest) as one would in reading a book. Click on the building image in the upper left corner of this blog post to navigated to the beginning of the ‘The Inside Story‘..
From all the ‘do-you-have-a-job’ letters, I received only one response and it was from the Microbiology Department, University of Otago. Professor Miles said there was a position available for teaching microbiology to science students. Then we exchanged a few cryptic Teletext messages and I received a job offer for initially a three year period with travel expenses paid which included family and household effects. Three years didn’t seem like a large commitment if it didn’t work out. As outlined in the previous posting (farewell dinner), I consulted with a Kiwi couple living in the same housing complex and they said the offer of $3,000/annum salary was a reasonable one.
The next step was to get to New Zealand. I went to the NZ Consulate in downtown San Francisco and asked the Maori beauty at reception: “What do I need to do to get to New Zealand?” She smiled back with the look of wild flowers growing near mountain streams and surf rolling in on sandy beaches and said: “Buy an air ticket”. Back in 1969 that was all that was required. I made some creative arrangements with a shipping company to pack all our household effects into the VW Combie van and ship it as a ‘container with wheels’. I also included some scientific supplies not knowing what kind of place I was going to end up in. I packed a supply of acrylamide gels, electrophoresis tanks, chromatography columns and reagents and other small pieces of lab equipment which would allow me to operate for about six months. This turned out to be a wise step since the Department at that stage was mainly carrying out microbiological research of the descriptive “look at what bacteria or virus I have isolated” kind and lacked any molecular biology equipment or expertise.
We went back for a quick trip to the Canadian prairies to say our farewells and then boarded a plane in Vancouver bound for New Zealand. In those days travel by air was very luxurious (no cattle class) and you were treated like royalty with plenty of leg room, wide seats, a five course meal and the clinking of champagne glasses over the Pacific.
En route we encountered some head winds so we missed a connecting flight to Sydney from Fiji. This meant a stay over in a luxury hotel complete with swimming pool which we all enjoyed.
As previously recalled (farewell dinner) during our approach to Christchurch, the pilot pointed out Mt Cook on the West Coast and reminded us to put our clocks forward by two hours and our years back by 20. That turned out to be quite a prophetic statement, but it didn’t bother me since I enjoyed the calm and secure pace of life of my childhood. On the connecting flight from Christchurch to Dunedin, we were warmly greeted by a distinguished English gentleman dressed in a 3-piece suit and carrying a copy of the General Journal of Microbiology tucked under his arm as an identity tag — this was Professor John Miles, HOD of the Department.
It was customary for the University to arrange accommodation for arriving academics at Owen’s Motel until their household effects arrived or other arrangements were made. It had the classic NZ 50’s furnishings, but it was comfortable and allowed us to adjust ourselves to the place. It was only a five minute walk to the Medical School where the Microbiology Department was located.
Dunedin in 1969 was a mature city of 80,000 and many of the buildings were built as a result of the gold rush in the 1860’s. By 1870 Dunedin was New Zealand’s largest and richest city with some of the finest architecture in the country. This ‘point of difference’ continues until the present day and it is one of the world’s greatest small cities. In 2014 Dunedin was designated as a UNESCO Creative City of Literature. — it “values and builds on its rich cultural heritage and supports the life of the mind and treasures its books and writers” (but I digress). It is a city of natural beauty surrounded by hills, a harbour and stunning beaches that are only a few minutes from the Octagon, the city’s centre.
The Microbiology Department was located in the Medical School on the 3rd floor of the Hercus and the Scott Buildings. At that time there were 8 academic staff members and 4 research staff as listed in the University calendar
We received a very warm welcome from the staff of the Department and were made to feel at home. We bought a 3-bedroom house up North East valley which was surrounded on three sides by paddocks and we moved in when our Combie van arrived with our household effects in October. As well the scientific equipment and supplies, I idealistically packed the books: Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.
To get my research started John Miles suggested that I apply for a research grant to the Medical Research Council. This consisted of a single page — a paragraph describing what research I planned to do and then a list of items required. At the bottom was a space for the total funds requested. Needless to say, since John Miles was the chairman of the Medical Research Council, the application was successful. There was a research project on the use of viruses to control the NZ pasture pests — grass grub and Porina which I was to inherit. Consequently, I was able to get my research up and running in a relatively short time.
John Miles was appointed as the first Professor of Microbiology in 1955 and by 1969 the Department was something of a family affair with John Miles being the patriarchal figure and the Loutits (husband and wife), were Mum and Dad and the other staff were either close relatives or the hired help or former students (children). There was plenty of socialising among the staff, dinner parties, gatherings on festive occasions and an esprit de corps about the Department.
To continue ‘The Inside Story’, the next blog will be about the Department before John Miles, then about the contributions made by John Miles, followed by the people who came after.