2017 is a landmark year for the John Innes Centre- we have now been based in Norwich for 50 years, and as a colleague recently remarked, that is the longest time the institute has been anywhere- making Norwich our true ‘spiritual home’. But when the Director of the ‘John Innes Institute’ (as it was then) announced the planned move to Norwich in 1962, the news was not initially welcomed by the staff – far from it. This blog attempts to explain why and describes some of the consequences of the move.
Undoubtedly one of the factors behind the staff’s opposition to the move was their love of the Bayfordbury site near Hertford. It had a lake for swimming and boating, 372 acres of grounds for botanising and birdwatching, and beautiful landscaped gardens and a pinetum. The Institute’s laboratories, including those in the recently constructed Cell Biology building, were well-equipped, there were extensive glasshouse facilities and plenty of land for plant experiments. Many of the staff had already experienced one move in their working lives- from the John Innes’ original site at Merton in Surrey. There were undoubtedly loved ones and connections they’d left behind in London, and Norwich was even more remote- too far indeed for the old Alumni to be able to visit. In short, the junior and senior staff were strongly against moving again and there was a call to arms. A printing press (secret from the Director) was set up in one of the Institute’s attics to print circulars and petitions for the staff’s opposition campaign. Two small files in our archive preserve their letters of protest to MPs and the media. These also document their appeals to the top people and organisations in plant science, and the support they received from people in power. But the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) had decided that all the research institutes it supported should be located close to a University and this decision could not be overturned. After looking at a couple of options it had been decided that the John Innes Institute should be associated with the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich. Unable to accept this, most of the senior staff left for jobs at more established Universities. In the short term this meant a considerable contraction in the staff: among other losses, JI’s highly successful fungal genetics group was dispersed. Just 22 research staff in total agreed to transfer from the old site at Bayfordbury.
So why was the idea of moving to Norwich so unpalatable to John Innes staff? The ‘newness’ of Norwich’s University was one factor. Planning for the ‘University of East Anglia’ (UEA) had only begun in late September 1961. The basic nucleus of the University, its classrooms, library, laboratories and refectory opened in temporary prefabricated buildings dubbed ‘the Village’, off Earlham Road, in 1963. The first students were enrolled in the autumn of 1963. To keep on schedule the new Vice Chancellor had opted to start the new Schools in temporary accommodation, while permanent buildings were under construction on the golf course nearby – afterwards known as the ‘University Plain’. The School of Biological Sciences (BIO), with which JI was destined to be partnered, was one of the first to launch the University on its teaching career. The new undergraduates and John Innes staff would have found a University on a ‘domestic scale’, but a grand and creative future was planned for the permanent site (Thistlethwaite 2000). By the time the John Innes Institute moved up to Norwich in 1967, the greenfield golf course over the road had an uncompromisingly modern set of buildings (the Ziggurats) and soon after the University library moved over to its permanent building (1968). The initial plan was for the John Innes staff to move into buildings on what is now the Norwich Airport at Horsham St Faiths, and then move on to the University campus when permanent buildings became available.
What were the consequences of the Institute’s move to Norwich? The first challenge for the re-launched John Innes Institute in Norwich was to find a new Director. The job was offered to Dr Roy Markham, FRS, Head of the ARC’s Virus Research Unit in Cambridge- whose re-location to Norwich was also engineered by the ARC, introducing plant virology to the Institute’s scientific departments. Having settled the Directorship, the next job was to fill the vacant Head of Department posts. The John Innes Charity Trustees had agreed to fund three professorships in BIO in the new spirit of integration with UEA. New John Innes Professorships of Genetics and Applied Genetics were advertised and Dr David Hopwood and Dr D. Roy Davies appointed. Roy Markham became Professor of Cell Biology as well as Director. In return for lectures and university duties, the Professors enjoyed privileges equal to University teaching staff, and could recruit talented PhD students. But there were also limits placed on the symbiosis between the two institutions. In the early days, Gordon Cox, head of ARC, hoped that JI’s relationship with BIO would be as close as possible, and talked of them occupying the same building. But this arrangement was judged to be a potential threat to the future independence of the John Innes. It also involved a plan to physically separate the ‘pure’ from the ‘applied’ work of the Institute- which again was viewed unfavourably- potentially involving scientists in time-consuming trips to visit their field plots and glasshouses. The John Innes was still partly privately funded and consequently enjoyed much greater freedom to arrange its affairs than other ARC institutes. Roy Markham, with the support of the John Innes Charity (now John Innes Foundation) took the decision that JI would not be physically located with BIO on the University site, but would develop its own site on 29 acres of farmland at the side of Colney Lane, where it is still located today.
The building work started in June 1966, and the temporary buildings that were ready were first occupied the following March; the rest were completed in June 1967. In this first phase the staff worked from prefabs (except some of the virus research staff who were accommodated at the nearby Food Research Institute) until the permanent buildings were ready.
One member of staff recalls it wasn’t easy to do Electron Microscope work in these makeshift conditions. The prefabs were too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter and the softwood frames didn’t fit very well so that it was very difficult to keep out the dust. In fact, the windows were taped up to keep out the dust so they also suffered from poor ventilation (Wells, 2000). The permanent buildings were built between 1969 and 1971 and were designed by architect Alan Paine. Today the ‘Bateson Building’ and the John Innes ‘Rec Centre’ are the main remnants of this first permanent building phase.
During the construction phase not everything went according to plan: in 1969 a spectacular failure of the six plant growth cabinets was caused by the pile driving carried out to support the south end of the main building (17 piles over 50 feet deep). This caused the loss of large amounts of experimental material. More fortunately, the financial failure of the main building contractors at the beginning of 1971 happened when most of the main laboratory building was completed. Though not mentioned in the Director’s Annual Reports, the archives suggest there were some teething problems!
Thanks to an excellent collection of memoirs in the John Innes Archives we can begin to imagine what the transition to Norwich had involved for the staff. They had to cope with the considerable upheaval of moving the Institute’s property and plant collections. Fruit trees had to be propagated and sent up to the new experimental fruit farm at Stanfield, near East Dereham. The garden Curator Gavin Brown and Don Smith, the farm manager, had to move trees, shrubs, seed boxes, flower pots, ladders and tractors. They purchased a second-hand McVitie’s biscuit van in Norwich, and hired a driver, and he did three trips a fortnight backwards and forwards from Bayfordbury to Norwich for 18 months to complete the removal. It was a ‘fantastic undertaking’ (Brown, 1981). Each department had its own packing challenges, in the Genetics Department, for example, Rosemary Carpenter had to move the Antirrhinum (Snapdragon) collection- mostly as seed, moving as few plants as possible. The collection had to be re-grown in Norwich, thousands of plants in outdoor plots and indoors, but the upheaval meant that the Antirrhinum work was at first ‘nothing like on the scale of Bayfordbury’. Another colleague remembered the move as ‘chaotic’: ‘things did get mislaid and things did get broken’- though it wasn’t as bad as many anticipated (Harrison 1989). There was an upside for the re-located staff though: ‘the move brought us all closer together’ (Carpenter, 2009).
At Markham’s Virus Research Unit in Cambridge, 1967 was an unsettled year, punctuated with architects’ meetings to plan the new labs. Some of the VRU staff moved in 1967, but the ‘protein group’ remained in Cambridge until the following year, starting work in Norwich in November 1968. Margaret Short remembered: ‘The move to Norwich came as a very unwelcome interruption to research, quite apart from the tedious and dirty job of packing all the chemicals and the apparatus, which [apart from the protein analyser] we had to do ourselves’ (Short, 1989). The plant virus collection had to be left in Cambridge while suitable glasshouse space could be provided in Norwich- to the credit of the Cambridge glasshouse staff none of the cultures were lost. The new Virus Department labs were occupied in February 1971, on decimalisation day.
Fast forward to April 1989, the Colney site was once again occupied by earth-movers, giant cranes, delivery lorries, mud and gravel. The new Sainsbury Laboratory was near completion, and the new Library and Archives building, designed by David Luckhurst, was finished in 1990. The construction of the new ‘Institute of Plant Science Research’ laboratory was well underway. This was the new three-storey ‘Cambridge Lab’ designed to house the 90 non-privatised staff moving up to Norwich from the old Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge and their new colleagues, students and visiting scientists. The money from the PBI privatisation (£38.8M) was used to replicate the suite of special glasshouses and other facilities left behind at Cambridge, and paid for the new Library and archives (which now housed John Innes and PBI collections). It also financed new offices for the Director of IPSR (Harold Woolhouse) at which point the old Institute frontage and Reception was re-modelled and given the familiar curved shape it has today. The Germ Plasm Resources Unit (seed store) was constructed to hold PBI’s nationally important collection of seeds and JI’s Pisum collection. The PBI Trustees funded new containment glasshouses for future GM work and many other facilities- transforming the original John Innes site. And more organisations and buildings have joined the John Innes campus since then: The Nitrogen Fixation Laboratory moved up from the University of Sussex to the purpose-built Joseph Chatt building in 1995, the Conference Centre was built in the same year, and the Genome Building (now the Earlham Institute) opened in 2001. The newest addition to the Campus is the Centrum Building which opened in 2014.
In science, the last 50 years have been eventful. As one researcher recalled (VRU, Cambridge and JI, 1948-1992): ‘Being around in these years when science has changed so much has been extraordinary. My school text books were not so different from my Father’s but things are taught now that were not known when I was given my first pay’. (Plaskitt, 1995). The move to Norwich introduced the relatively new idea that a lab would consist not just of scientists and technicians but groups made up of scientists, technicians, students and post docs. Some of the highlights of their achievements over these years are captured in JI’s centenary timeline and the John Innes Foundation timeline.
There will be a Public Open Day on Saturday 16th September 2017 to celebrate the John Innes Centre’s 50 years in Norwich- do join us. Keep an eye out for news of JIC50 events on the John Innes Centre website
Frank Thistlethwaite (2000). Origins: a personal reminiscence of UEA’s foundation (Cambridge: Frank Thistlethwaite).
Staff memoirs quoted here from the John Innes Centre Archives include:
Brian Wells, 2000; Gavin Brown, 1981; Brian Harrison, 1989; Rosemary Carpenter 2009; Margaret Short, 1989; and Kitty Plaskitt, 1995.