Archive | October, 2013

From ‘Dora and Desmond’ to Professor Roy Markham and Professor David Lipkin

In this guest blog archives enthusiast Anna Cullingford describes how she stumbled across a collection of John Innes related letters at a local auction in Norfolk. My neighbour had put us in touch, knowing that I looked after the John Innes archives. ‘Would I like to see them?’- Of course I would!  I thought this might be an opportunity to rescue a part of John Innes history that might otherwise be lost.  Anna was kind enough to check her set of originals against our box of photocopies and concluded that we do have copies of the entire correspondence in the John Innes Archives- these had been donated some years ago. How the originals later got into the auction is a mystery. Anna’s tale shows how papers like this, with no obvious interest to the local auction-going public, could easily have disappeared without trace.

To provide some biographical background to the two scientists who feature in Anna’s blog:  Roy Markham, FRS (1916-1989), was a biochemist who studied plant viruses at the Virus Research Unit in Cambridge, of which he was Head from 1960. As Anna explains, he then became the first Director of the John Innes Institute when the Institute moved to Colney in Norfolk in 1967. Roy was interested in the structure of plant viruses, and during the 1960s and 70s was preoccupied with improving methods for obtaining information about this using the electron microscope. His later years were dominated by the demands of his Directorship.  David Lipkin (1913-2004) was a chemist with a distinguished career that included developing new compounds and finding innovative ways to synthesise existing compounds. During his long correspondence with Roy, Lipkin worked in the Department of Chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis which he had joined with five other scientists from the Manhattan Project in 1946. His work had an impact on many fields including biochemistry, genetics, clinical medicine and pharmacology. But it is probably the time that he worked on the Manhattan Project (a US-led project to develop atomic bombs), that will attract the attention of historians of science. Anna, now custodian of the letters, takes a longer and more personal view of the man understood through this trans-Atlantic friendship.

Anna Cullingford with letters from the Markham - Lipkin correspondence

Anna Cullingford with ‘Dora and Desmond’ and letters from the Markham – Lipkin correspondence

From “Dora and Desmond” to Professor Roy Markham and Professor David Lipkin

In July 2011 I was at a local auction looking to bid for a pair of African carved Tribal Art figures. On the viewing day I noticed there was a box with paperwork and glass slides up for bidding attributed to Professor Roy Markham, the first director of the (Norwich) John Innes Institute. I knew of him as I had worked at the JII/JIC from 1993 to 2001.

On auction day, when I had bid and paid for my items (now affectionately known as Dora and Desmond), I decided to return to the auction room to see who would buy the Roy Markham papers and how much they would go for. The auctioneer started the bidding for the lot at £100 but there were no bidders, and he reduced the price each time until £10 was reached. I realised that there was no reserve on the papers, and as the auctioneer faltered I was concerned that the lot would be withdrawn and maybe scrapped if there was no interest, so I decided to bid for them. Thus I became the owner of a box of letters and glass photographic negatives pertaining to Roy Markham and his working life in Cambridge and Norwich.

On closer inspection at home, I discovered that there are 101 letters and papers, 90% of these are letters between Professor Roy Markham and Professor David Lipkin of the University of Washington, in St Louis, USA. Had I been a contemporary of theirs I would never have associated with them. I have found them on paper to be warm, humorous and above all, human. They obviously enjoyed a good working relationship and got on well together.

The letters in the 1950’s and 60’s are from these two men who are working at the bench and enjoying their work. There are a lot of chemical/scientific references as they bounce ideas off each other. Much of this material is over my head. As they mature and their careers develop the lab. work takes second place to other responsibilities, like admin. and managerial roles, and the chemistry references are replaced by more personal things, such as how they are managing their new roles and what their families are up to. They also comment on world events at the time, such as the assassination of J F Kennedy, the Vietnam war and the Washington and Baltimore riots. As well as being highly gifted academically, Roy was also good at practical work and was adept at making and/or adapting apparatus for his experiments. Several of the letters to David have rough sketches of his designs and modifications. David  was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1955, enabling him to spend a few months in Europe and he came to Cambridge to work for a time. David was the first to synthesize cyclic AMP and worked on nucleic acids.

Of special interest to me are the letters from the late 1960’s when Roy was asked to become director of the new John Innes Institute in Norwich and his subsequent move, with his group, from Cambridge to Norwich. There are other interesting letters (and a secret) too, and I consider it a privilege to be the owner of this correspondence. I have had many hours of enjoyment from these letters. My next task is to try and catalogue the glass negatives.

The last letter was sent from Roy to David on 5th May 1978 – there is nothing from either man after this date. Roy died aged 63 in November 1979, while David died aged 91 in March 2004.


I picked these two letters for the photograph because they are my favourite letters of them all. I think because Roy and David are comfortable with each other, as they have been corresponding for many years, their personalities are given free rein on these pages here. Roy has written 6 pages by hand to David, telling of his thoughts and feelings about being appointed Director of the JII, as it was then. Having worked at the JIC for 8 years this is very interesting to me. His letter is a reply to David’s letter, which is 10 pages long!! David has hand written his letter too – normally his letters were typed by his secretary. Again, there are personal thoughts, comments on world events and scientific information included.



Continue Reading ·