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‘..
In 1956 John Loutit was appointed as lecturer to the Department and he arrived with his wife Margaret. They had met at the University of Adelaide where John had completed a BSc in microbiology and organic chemistry. He encouraged Margaret to undertake PhD research at Otago and she completed her degree in 1966 and became a full time member of the Department. They formed a dynamic duo and gave the Department the distinctive Mum and Dad family ethos.
John was born in Adelaide in 1925. He was educated at Adelaide Boys’ High School and Adelaide University. He majored in microbiology and chemistry for his BSc, which he gained in 1945. From 1946 until 1952 he was a Junior Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide, then from 1953-55 a temporary lecturer at Queensland University. During this time he studied for his PhD on Pseudomonas mutations, and was awarded his degree by the University of Adelaide in 1955. In 1956 he took up an appointment as Lecturer in microbiology at the University of Otago, John’s research interests during his career as a teacher of microbiology had a heavy emphasis on the genetics of Pseudomonas aeruginosa. He produced the first auxotrophic mutants and the first published report of genetic recombination in this species.
John Loutit was Dean of the Science Faculty from 1974 to 1976 and then became the Chairman of the Department from 1977 to 1987. John describes the Department and the preceding events from his perspective: (excerpts from archival material held in the Hocken Collections, University of Otago):
As Dean of Science
Apart from the difficulties of maintaining a proper relationship with the Medical Faculty there was one other adverse effect of the move and that was the effect on research. The research output as measured by the annual numbers of publications clearly dropped after the move  but the loss was more than made up in later years. I believe also that the quality of the research improved with the advent of new sophisticated equipment.
Apart from the preceding historical appraisal there are several other matters I would like to mention. One is my appointment as Dean of Science in 1974. It was an interesting decision of the Science Faculty to recognise the significant role of Departments like Biochemistry, Microbiology and Physiology in the affairs of the Faculty and to consider appointing a Dean from a Department in another Faculty. For me it was a totally unexpected invitation and, having decided that it was something which I should consider carefully, my first move was to discuss the matter with Bill Adams who was the Dean of Medicine at that time. He showed no hesitation and told me to go ahead and I must say they were three very interesting and instructive years. Unfortunately perhaps for his successor the three years were not served with Bill Adams and I hope that the new Dean of Medicine was not too upset by the arrangement. It was an enriching experience for me and I have no doubt that the Department gained something from my increased understanding of the system. It is probable that the Medical faculty also gained something although in subsequent years I often felt that I was offside with my colleagues on the Medical Faculty because I seemed to have a broader perspective on University affairs. My one regret was that I did not take a full year’s leave immediately after my period as Dean but I felt very strongly that there were many matters which needed immediate attention and John Miles was very keen to relinquish the Chairmanship of the Department. – I know that my research suffered because of this decision.
As Chairman of the Department
Re-organisation of the Department turned out to be much more difficult than I thought it would be. With the new building, new equipment and increased budgets there was no one on the staff with the skills to cope with stores and finance. The staff had not changed much and some had been there for over 30 years. It was very frustrating to work out ways to cope whilst unable to appoint new staff and I found as Chairman that I spent far more time than I should have worrying about such things and learning about finance and eventually computing. It was not the best way for a scientist to spend his time but there seemed to be no alternatives.
Another matter of some interest was the relationship of the Department to the Medical Faculty and I was delighted that eventually we became much more accepted despite our physical separation from the main Medical School. Probably the most important reason for our acceptance was the success of the new course for medical students developed when the study of Microbiology was moved from the fourth year of the course to the third year. The new course was designed by Sandy Smith, Frank Griffin and Gerald Tannock. They moved away from the traditional diagnostic approach which had been used for so long and developed a course more concerned with the nature of microorganisms and the mechanisms which made them pathogenic. The course was well received by the students who had not been impressed with the older teaching and it established a consistently good record over the years. This went a long way towards establishing a good relationship with other departments and the relationship was reinforced when it was realised that we had the ideal facilities for integrated practical examinations. The Departments of Clinical Biochemistry, Pathology and Physiology brought their materials to the Department of Microbiology for those examinations. It is true that it would have been much easier had we been closer but it was nevertheless a clear recognition that we were part of the Faculty.
The other matter worth discussion in this context is our relationship with the hospital diagnostic service. For years we had said that we had something to offer a service which was run at the grass roots level by technicians and supervised by medically qualified staff We knew that we had knowledge and skills which complemented these two groups but we did find it difficult to get this point accepted. Ultimately our point of view was accepted during the time when Richard Meech was employed as Infectious Disease Physician. Because of his training which was somewhat different from that of traditional medical microbiologists he recognised that individuals with science training could offer something to the service and Sandy Smith began to attend diagnostic service meetings on a regular basis. This continued long after Richard Meech resigned and I believe the practice is still continuing. To me this development was important and I am sure that it has been of benefit to both the hospital and the department. It has also led to the acceptance of Sandy as someone to be consulted by physicians and surgeons and he was appointed as Honorary Consultant to the Hospital. My main regret about this particular development was its fragility. It relied so much on the skills and knowledge of one person and I always hoped that it would eventually be strengthened in some way. Whatever has happened in that direction there is no doubt that it played a big part in the acceptance of the Department of Microbiology as an integral part of the Faculty of Medicine.
I was appointed Chairman in 1977 and remained for some 10 years. In retrospect they were difficult years for a Chairman as we struggled to become more accountable with staff not trained for the various tasks. I was not sorry to relinquish the task early. I believe that at the end of that time we had a very good relationship with the Medical Faculty and there was very little talk of separating medical and science interests in the department particularly since the science component provided a source of growth for the Faculty.
Margaret Wyn Loutit was born in Burra, South Australia in 1929. She graduated from the University of Adelaide with a BSc (Hons) in 1950 and an MSc in 1954. After coming to NZ with her husband, John, she lectured part-time and began a PhD degree course at Otago in 1962 and completed it in 1966. She was appointed to the full-time staff and along side her teaching commitments raised a family of three sons, Tom, Jeffrey and William. She was appointed to a Personal Chair in Microbiology in 1981.
Margaret played a major role in the Department by providing the ‘mother’s touch’ to the family ethos. It is fitting to quote Sandy Smith’s, a student of Molly Marples, account of the contributions that Margaret made to the University – written in 1994 for a departmental Newsletter.
Margaret Loutit obtained both her BSc and MSc degrees from Adelaide University, Her early training was as a botanist and she has retained a keen interest in plants and gardening. In 1955 she and her husband John left Australia to come to Dunedin, and so began an association with the University and the Department of Microbiology which has spanned a period of 40 years.
Margaret’s first decade in Dunedin was devoted to the rearing of their family of three young sons. However, during this period she still managed to find time to hold part-time appointments at the University and to complete a PhD degree. Her appointment to a full-time lectureship in microbiology in 1967 was followed by rapid promotion to a personal chair in 1982. She left the Department in 1990, taking up the position, initially part-time and more latterly full-time, as Director of the Research and Development office.
During her long association with the Department of Microbiology, Margaret contributed greatly to teaching, research and administration. She was a gifted and respected undergraduate teacher, known for her care and concern for students. As a postgraduate supervisor and teacher, she was responsible for the training of a large number of young scientists who have gone on to make their mark in many different fields of microbiology.
In addition to her many other commitments, Margaret continued to run a productive research group, which focused on investigating problems in soil and water microbiology; she published more than fifty scientific publications in this field. Her early studies involved the effects of bacteria on the uptake of metals by plants. This lead on to further work in the role of bacteria in the transfer of metals through the food chain. More recent studies were centred on the survival of microorganisms in aquatic environments and their significance in assessing water quality and public health.
However, Margaret is probably best known for her enormous contribution to administration and management, both within the University and to many and various bodies outside of the University. It is here. that her energy, efficiency and organisational skills were most apparent.
Margaret made contributions in several important areas in the University. As a long standing member of the works committee, she was involved in many important aspects of campus planning and development. A second area, in which she made a notable input, was in fostering marine science and aquaculture research. For many years she served as the Director of the Aquaculture Research Centre and as a member of the Portebello Laboratory Management Committee. A third area in which she made a very considerable contribution was in the establishment of advising and consulting services in the University. In particular, she played a major part in the setting up of UNIVORD, and the Research and Development Office, which she has continued to direct with tireless energy and great expertise.
Margaret has also acted as a consultant, and served with great distinction on many committees and bodies outside of the University; e.g. water resource and biosphere management, conservation, technology and human resources management. In addition, she was also active as a member of the executive of the New Zealand Microbiological Society, having served terms on the committee, and as vice-president and president.
In the international arena, Margaret was a long serving member of the executive of the Bacteriology Division of the International Union of Microbiological Societies, having at one time or another, held the positions of secretary-treasurer, vice-president and president. She has also been an active member of the International Committee on Microbial Ecology and has served terms as both secretary and chairman. As such, she was responsible for the inaugural International Congress in Microbial Ecology held in Dunedin in 1977.
In a brief sketch like this it is not possible to do justice to the tremendous contributions Margaret has made to both the Department of Microbiology and to the University. It is hard to imagine Margaret settling into the quiet life of retirement – needless to say she will continue to serve on national bodies and with John to visit their two eldest children in Australia and the United States.
John Loutit served on many Otago University committees and was on the Senate. He was also a member of the Otago Medical School Research Society and was president of the New Zealand Microbiological Society. His other interests were fine wines, music, computers and wood carving. After his retirement in 1988 he served as foreman/contractor cum odd-job man during the building of their new house. The family had long rented a stone cottage on a farm in the Strath Taieri area where he enjoyed fishing in the nearby Taieri river with his three sons. John died in December, 2012 and was survived by his wife Margaret and sons, Tom, Jeffrey and William.
Margaret Loutit retired from the Department in 1991 but as mentioned above she continued to serve the University by running the Research Office (facilitating research funding), which she had established in 1988 for the University. She retired from this position in 1995. I think an outstanding highlight of her career was her organization of the inaugural meeting of the International Congress in Microbial Ecology held in Dunedin in 1977 with 380 participants coming from 30 countries.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that things didn’t always go smoothly with me and the Loutits and to some extent with the rest of the Department. The issues were around conflicts of interest and collision between Margaret and John, particularly when John was the Head of the Department. John and Margaret would run ‘ping pong’ staff meetings in which they carried all the discussion since they were the only ones privy to the relevant information and even if all of the other staff disagreed John would famously say: “It seems that we are equally divided on this one”. I had complained to the University hierarchy on a number of occasions about the husband-wife situation but this fell on deaf ears. It was little wonder since the Loutits were part of the ‘ClockTower Mafia’ and socialised with the Vice-Chancellor, the Registrar, and other senior officials of the University. To add some objectivity to this matter, I conducted a survey of the top 10 universities in the world on their policies on husband and wives being in the same department. I received lengthy documents outlining their policies which basically said that it was not their recommended practice. Their Human Resources staff examined and weighed potential risks of hiring immediate family members and determined if the risks outweighed the benefits. Some of the potential risks identified were: adverse impact on the moral of other staff, unfair advantage gained by a family member or perceived favouritism. I decided that the key to my complaint was to provide evidence of favouritism. I began digging into the departmental financial statements and since I was managing substantial sums of money from several research grants I had access to the accounts. I did find some irregularities and began clarifying them with the departmental accountant (all on tape, of course). I was about to put together a case when all staff meetings were suspended until further notice. I was accused of sabotaging the department. By this time it was mid-1982 and I had previously arranged to take a six-month sabbatical leave at the University of Oklahoma as part of my Antarctic research program. When I got back, my interests and the departmental dynamics for a ‘palace revolt’ had changed and we all moved on.
During this time we had regular social events, with each floor or group staging a theme or a quiz night. This was co-ordinated by a Social Committee of which the postgraduate students were the most active members. Below is a gallery of photos from a 1984 Christmas Party organised by Gillian Lewis and Rob Archibald.