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‘..
The Medical Research Council’s Virus Research Unit (VRU) has been part of the fabric of the Department since the early days It was established by Sir Charles Hercus in 1948 and the first director was Dr Richardson, an immunologist. He soon left and was replaced in 1949 by Dr Lyle Fastier, a virologist. When John Miles arrived in 1955, he took up the Directorship and held that position until he retired in 1979. Frank Austin became the Acting Director from 1979 till 1983. This was followed by Tony Robinson (1983 – 1993) and Andy Mercer from 1993 to the present. In 2010 Andy Mercer was appointed to the inaugural Chair of Viral Pathogenesis.
Frank Austin and Terry Maguire were long standing members of the Virus Research Unit and both had honorary lecturer status in the Department and supervised postgraduate students and gave the occasional lecture. Frank Austin’s activities were covered in an earlier posting — Before Miles.
Terry Maguire joined the staff of the MRC Virus Research Unit at Otago in 1958, on completion of his BSc in Microbiology under the old University of New Zealand. In 1964 he became the first PhD in Microbiology to graduate from the University of Otago. Post-doctoral studies followed at Yale, the CDC in Atlanta and Porton Down in the UK. His principal research interests have included field studies on the epidemiology of insect-transmitted viruses, especially dengue, and also of human hepatitis. Terry has continued his research interest in virus vaccine development until his retirement from the Virus Research Unit in 1997. He then worked (1997 – 2000) as a post doc for Vernon Ward and James Kalmakoff’s Marsden Fund project on inhibitors of cell death in insect viruses.
Terry had an interest in photography and this began through the camera club in his days at King’s High School in Dunedin. He joined the Dunedin Photographic Society in 1957 and held many positions in that Society and was President 1967-1968 and also served many years on the Council of Photographic Society of NZ. He was awarded the honour of ESFIAP in 1980 for services to photography and was a judge for numerous clubs, exhibitions and salons. He has also contributed widely to club activities through scores of lectures and teaching seminars over many years. He was a well known after dinner speaker and enliven many a gathering with his wit and photographic slides.
An example of his memorable after dinner speeches is the one given at the celebration of Sixty Years of Virology at Otago held in late 2008, embellished with his photographs.
I fear that one of the reasons I have been asked to speak to you here tonight is that conference dinners like this provide the younger organizers with an opportunity to drag out some old dinosaur virologists from their troglodytic dungeons to regale you with boring recollections of the good old days. However, I think it would be better considered as an example to you all about what YOU will all become eventually – that is, old virologists. The envelope glycoproteins start to wrinkle, the fibrillar antigens fall off, structural proteins start to fall apart, the internal metabolism is totally disrupted by poor nutrition, drugs and too much 70% alcohol, and the DNA and RNA have mutated to the stage where the reproductive cycle is totally stuffed.
I really should now do what I was asked and that was to give a personal view of the development of virus research at Otago University. After the second World War, the MRC set up, among others, a Committee for Research in Immunology and Viruses, and appointed Max Richardson to initiate a virus laboratory. In 1949 Lyle Fastier took up the position of leader of this new dedicated virus laboratory. The upgrading of the laboratory to new facilities on the roof of the Scott Building at the Medical School took place around 1953 when Frank Austin joined Lyle. John Miles became Honorary director on the resignation of Lyle Fastier in 1955. The MRC Committee was disbanded in 1962, when the group became officially known as the Virus Research Unit. John Miles retired in 1979 and Frank Austin was Acting Director before Tony Robinson was appointed Director in 1983, a position he retained until he moved to Australia in 1993. Andy Mercer, the current head of the group, was appointed Director in the same year. Thus over the 60 or more years viruses have been studied at Otago, there have been 6 chiefs, but there have also been a lot of Indians, some employed for long periods. When I joined the VRU at the end of 1958, there were just two professional staff and two technical staff members. With the change from Unit structure to today’s projects and programmes, and funding coming from a wide variety of sources, the number directly involved in virus research has grown well beyond that imaginable in the 1950s.
The first decade of research here covered a mixed bag of projects and viruses, including orf, polio, psittacosis, Japanese encephalitis and influenza. It was not until 1959 that an effort was made to work on one particular group of viruses for a prolonged period. Since John Miles had a longstanding interest in vector transmitted diseases, and because there had been reported cases of unexplained encephalitis in parts of NZ, it was not surprising that this was the group settled upon for study. Some of the tick and mosquito-borne viruses were known to have caused major epidemics in the Pacific and it seemed important that we investigated their distribution in the South Pacific region. These studies involved lovely pastimes that ranged from sleeping in pup-tents in the mosquito and sandfly ridden Westland bush, eating pressure-cooked pukeko and black swans eggs for dinner and showering about once a week at the Whataroa pub, to sweltering in the humid jungles of Fiji. But we did manage to isolate the only alphavirus so far found in New Zealand, now known as Whataroa virus, and do significant antibody profiling of Pacific island people, which enabled us to predict the major dengue epidemics which occurred there in the 1970s, and to study first hand the major Ross River epidemic in the Pacific in 1979. After a decade working on hepatitis viruses, interspersed with Pacific epidemics of dengue and Ross River, the efforts of the Unit members diversified at the time of the appointment of Tony Robinson, to include orf virus infection and immunity. Late in the 1970s and mid 1980s Frank Austin did some very important studies on the role of wild birds and other animals, in the antigenic changes and dissemination of human influenza viruses with Prof. Rob Webster from Memphis, including a couple of trips looking at these viruses in penguins, skuas and seals in Antarctica in 1978 and 1986. Then from about 1987, Frank joined me and several students working again on our long-lost love, the dengue viruses.
Health and Safety inspectors would have had a field day had they visited the old Unit on the roof of the Scott Building. It consisted of two main laboratories, a kitchen/sterilization area, two sterile rooms for tissue cultures, an egg incubation room, a couple of store rooms, plus some animal rooms in another building nearby. Because we had nowhere else, we had morning tea in the kitchen beside the piles of mouse tins and bowls of eggs waiting to be autoclaved, the biscuits were kept in the cupboard under the sink where the glassware was washed and the milk in the frig where all our media, viruses and antibodies etc were kept. You have no idea what it was like to drink a cup of tea while breathing the fumes of a freshly opened autoclave which had just finished sterilizing a load of used mouse tins. Fortunately, several people on the staff also smoked at morning tea time, which added a sort of air-freshener to the atmosphere. We also had a pet lame duckling which wandered around the lab floor for some time.
At the height of our virus isolation attempts in the 1960s and 1970s the Unit was using up to 100 litters of newborn mice a week and several dozen embryonated hen or duck eggs from which we made tissue culture monolayers. Imagine the cost this would have incurred at todays rates. Over the years we used many animal and bird species including monkeys, rabbits, guinea pigs, possums, rats and mice, hens, ducks, chickens, goats and keas. The latter were kept in a strong wire cage on the roof near the lab, until one of the senior staff members accidentally left the cage door open and several escaped one week-end. A couple of weeks later there was great excitement when the local newspaper reported the first sighting of a kea on Mt Cargill. We kept very quiet.
There were, of course, many other problems not faced by today’s workers. No computers, sequencers, disposable plastic ware and ready-to-use reagents. Even getting a paper or thesis ready for submission was a major undertaking. My own PhD thesis was typed –four copies- using carbon paper. Every mistake had to be corrected four times or the page retyped. Then of course a new mistake would be found. Life was not easy.
A major problem was refrigeration. Virus storage was a dicey business when you relied on an old household deep-freezer modified with higher powered compressors and lagged with thick layers of cork, which at best maintained a lower temperature of -25oC. Freeze drying was a much more reliable way of keeping our viruses viable.
Life was not easy, as I have said, but that really is looking back in hindsight. At the time, we were able to establish an excellent network of international contacts and this became extremely valuable in our work here in isolation. The opportunity to work in the laboratories of some of these people over the years was a very valuable learning experience. Funding too was not too much of a worry. I think when John Miles was Director, he just rang the MRC and told them what he needed and we got it. No grant application torture of the sort you all experience today. Staff members did not fear for their future and it was possible to establish oneself in a career in virology and work toward international credibility without having to worry about where your next grant was coming from.
The people who have worked in virus research over the years, both the professional and technical staff, have been a very mixed and interesting group of people. I must pay special tribute to Barrie Rutledge who worked as a technician in the Unit for over 40 years, to Yvonne Coughlan who worked there for 29 years, and a couple of the existing staff, Ellena Whelan and Cathy McCaughan, who have both loyally supported the work of the group for more than 20 years. Without these invaluable people life would have been very dull and certainly less productive.
Social activities have been one of the strong points in maintaining a high staff morale enjoyed over all the years that I was associated with the unit, and I understand, still are. Dinners, movie outings, tramps, parties on any excuse whatever, golf and cricket, or any reason at all to celebrate (birthdays, new babies, awards, graduations, thirst) were all part of the social landscape.
It was a great time to work and very satisfying for me personally to have worked with happy people and to have served my time with the VRU. In conclusion, may I wish all those still actively engaged in virus research at Otago now and over the next 60 years the same satisfaction, the same fun, some good results and most of all the ability in later life to avoid the possibility of being paraded in front of an audience like this waffling on about the good old days – even if they were.
Terry Maguire first began work with Leopold Kirschner and paid tribute to Leopold’s unrecognized contribution to microbiology at an address to the 40th NZMS Conference (see video below). Dr Kirschner arrived in NZ in 1946 with his wife after 25 years at the Pasteur Institute in Java, where he was deputy director. The Pasteur Institute had the responsibility for preparing vaccines and carrying out diagnostic services for the total population of 70 million. After the Japanese invasion Leopold was interned and was involved in producing yeast vitamin tablets for the 30,000 internees whose diet was woefully deficient in vitamins. After the war ended with Japan the situation was even more dangerous due to the constant attacks by Indonesian terrorist and the ever-present risk of being shot by snipers that hid in trees. Charles Hercus appointed him to a research position in the medical school and he carried out research on streptolysin, leptospirosis, and Tb diagnosis and was responsible for maintaining the Bacterial Type Culture Collection.