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John Innes Celebrates 50 Years in Norwich 2017

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.

First John Innes Institute students, Norwich, October 1969

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 first John Innes buildings were prefabs: the administration building 1967-8

The original John Innes Library, 1967-8

 

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.

The original front entrance of the John Innes Institute early 1970s.

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!

‘Monty Paine’s Leaking Institute’. Spoof portrait of Director Roy Markham in front of the new John Innes Institute. John Innes Centre Archives.

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.

John Innes tea room (Bateson Common Room) early 1970s. Today lab coats are not allowed in eating areas!

John Innes ‘Rec Centre’ Bar, early 1970s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Innes Institute Reception in 1983, before it was remodelled.

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

 

Further reading

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.

 

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John Innes collection of rare botanical books helps science communication project

Guest Blog by Melanie Robb

A recent graduate of the University of East Anglia, I first became interested in the historical collection of the John Innes Centre library during a Science Communication project in my final year – this involved researching plants with medicinal properties for a new garden to be opened on campus later this year (the Modern Physic Garden, or MPG) and writing content for the forthcoming website, including images and historical references.  After discovering that the JIC had its own collection of rare botanical texts, we felt this could be a useful resource as well as providing an opportunity for collaboration between the UEA and JIC.  A subsequent visit revealed a rich collection of works, including rare herbals and books of medical botany which we otherwise would not have had access to.  Outreach Curator Sarah Wilmot was incredibly helpful in locating and providing digitised images from some of the books in the collection, enabling us to include some beautiful botanical artwork in our content for the website.

Since graduating I have continued with this project as an intern working with Dr Laura Bowater (UEA) and have been able to maintain the relationship developed with staff at the John Innes Historical Collections (JIHC) – we are now working together to create a set of digitised images of medicinal plants which will feature on the MPG website.

A selection of botanical images digitised at the JIHC, taken from Woodville’s Medical Botany, 3rd Ed. (1832), one of the many books on medical botany in the John Innes Historical Collections

Lavender

Lavender (Lavendula spica)

Chilli

Chilli (Capsicum)

Hops

Hops (Humulus lupulus)

Saffron

Saffron (Crocus sativa)

 

 

 

A brief history of physic gardens

Humans have been collecting and cultivating plants for their medicinal values for millennia and there is no doubt that these would have been grown in dedicated gardens throughout history. However the first formal ‘physic’ gardens appeared in Italy at the beginning of the 16th century and the trend soon spread across Europe, with the first opening in the UK at Oxford University in 1621. These gardens started out as collections of medicinal plants which were used as educational resources for apothecaries, doctors and students of medicine. Within a couple of centuries however, physic gardens declined in popularity and use for a number of reasons, in particular:

  • improvements in printing technology enabled mass production of medical and botanical texts and there was less need for dedicated gardens for learning
  • at the same time the ‘age of exploration’ led to the discovery of thousands of new plant species which were collected and displayed in botanic gardens, many of which had started life as physic gardens

Although Britain has a rich history of botanic gardens, only a handful of stand-alone physic gardens are open to the public today (eg: Chelsea, Dilston, Cowbridge and Petersfield Physic gardens). The Modern Physic Garden at the UEA will celebrate the historical value of maintaining a collection of useful medicinal plants whilst bringing the idea into the 21st Century. Many modern pharmaceuticals are derived from plant-based medicines which have been used in folklore and herbalism for centuries and it is this connection between past, present and future health, which the MPG aims to represent.

About the Modern Physic Garden

The brainchild of Dr Laura Bowater, the Modern Physic Garden will offer the opportunity for students, researchers and the public to come together to explore the role of plants in society today. The garden will take inspiration from the science, history and culture of important and useful plants, with an emphasis on local resources and current plant science research here at the Norwich Research Park.  Due to open in October 2015, there will be several themes within the garden, including:  pharmaceuticals, clothing, building, energy, food and drink.

 

Using the historical collection in an outreach project:

Some of the images already provided by the JIHC have been used in an outreach project in collaboration with Dr Laura Bowater.  This art and science collaborative venture was funded by North West Norfolk Decorative & Fine Art Society (NWNDFAS) and involved local glass artists (www.saltglassstudios.co.uk) working with Burnham Primary School. The project used the inspiration of plants from the Physic Garden to encourage the school pupils to design a series of glass labels for their own personal use. They also took part in a competition to design a glass plant label to be displayed and used in the garden. Botanical images from JIHC were used as inspiration for the children’s artwork, while they also learned about the uses and scientific features of their chosen plants.

3B. SALT glass studios. BMPS for Glass Art Workshop for Plant lables for the UEA MPG, NADFAS.25.6.15.Photo Credit ©

 

I have really enjoyed working with the JIHC – as someone who is passionate about botany, history and science it has been a wonderful opportunity to view rare works of historical importance and to display some of this work to the public in a modern context.  I believe that being able to access and use this valuable resource has added depth and interest to the work of communicating plant science.

 

 

Glass signs designed by schoolchildren at Burnham Primary School, copyright SALT glass studios:

 

©SALT glass studios23 BMPS School Garden Plant LabelsDSCF9658

Salt glass labels 2

Salt Glass labels 1

 

The John Innes Historical Collections are open to the public by appointment. Get in touch if you have an idea for science communication that you think we might help with!

Contact: sarah.wilmot@jic.ac.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Harvest Moon and the Wheat Wizard

 

Harvest Moon 05

Statue of Sir Rowland Biffen with some historic wheat varieties from the Germ Plasm Resources Unit, John Innes Centre

In September the John Innes Centre celebrated the life and work of plant breeder Rowland Biffen, one of the key figures documented in the Plant Breeding Institute archives which were transferred to JIC archives after the Institute was privatised in 1987. The celebration was planned around a huge wooden desk ‘Biffen’s Desk’ which has stood in our Conference Centre at Norwich since its transfer from the old Plant Breeding Institute site in Trumpington, Cambridge. We recruited an intern to design an innovative exhibition around this artefact, tapping into the University of East Anglia’s internship scheme (a scheme to give paid work experience opportunities to recent UEA graduates). This blog is based on our intern Megan Penney’s work.

_DSC9288 Rowland Biffen Lantern slide: wheat ears

Wheat ears from Rowland Biffen’s collection of glass lantern slides, John Innes Archives

 

Megan began by exploring the archive which included exploiting some uncatalogued glass lantern slides that belonged to Biffen for projection onto walls and poster displays. These images were combined with examples of historic wheat plants sourced from JIC’s Germ Plasm Resource Unit, and Biffen artefacts from the archives, to bring Biffen’s history alive. Megan was also able to cleverly integrate JIC’s modern time-lapse photography of a growing wheat field into the exhibition. By up-ending a couple of the old and stained desk drawers and projecting the film into them she cleverly ‘antiqued’ the moving images.

Harvest Moon 42 Nikolai Adamski talks about wheat

JIC crop scientist Nikolai Adamski explaining how today’s wheat geneticists are unlocking wheat’s natural diversity

 

 

 

 

The exhibition was presented to the Friends of John Innes on the 8th September in an event titled ‘Harvest Moon and the Wheat Wizard’ and the evening also featured informal talks from our present and future wheat wizards, Philippa Borrill and Nikolai Adamski. Christine and David Hill gave the farmers’ perspective on the challenges of wheat farming today.

 

 

Rowland Biffen at his desk with giant wheat ear

Rowland Biffen examines a giant ear of wheat staged by Cambridge University Agriculture students to playfully convey aspirations for the future of wheat breeding

So why celebrate Biffen? Biffen more than anyone else is associated with the establishment of modern plant breeding in Britain. Some of the principal organisations for crop improvement, especially the Plant Breeding Institute and the National Institute for Agricultural Botany at Cambridge, were established to accommodate his plant breeding and genetics. His two wheat varieties Little Joss (1910) and Yeoman (1916) were popular with farmers and his work on yellow rust resistance opened up the exciting prospect of uniting genetics with plant pathology. Though at the beginning Biffen had to contend with some teasing about his introduction of ‘bread studies’ to an ancient University, he ended up being dubbed the ‘wheat wizard’ and his standing with contemporaries secured him a knighthood. His Institute afterwards went on to establish the genetic basis of key traits and identify sources of variation to breed better crops, while also contributing to advances in crop science and plant breeding methods. His legacy continues in JIC’s Biffen Building today.

 

_DSC9279 Lab interior, where bread making qualities were studied

‘Bread studies’: bread making qualities were studied in the lab

 

More info:

For a brief sketch of Rowland Biffen and Plant Breeding Institute history, see http://www.trumpingtonlocalhistorygroup.org/subjects_PBIhistory.html

And the JIC Centenary timeline: https://www.jic.ac.uk/centenary/history-timeline.htm (entries for 1912, 1967, 1987, 1990, 1994).

Harvest Moon 21

Two recent University of Leeds PhD theses take a deeper look at the development of plant breeding in Britain, including Biffen’s role:

Berris Charnley PhD (2011)

http://ipbio.org/pdfs/papers/charnley-berris-agricultural-science-and-the-emergence-of-a-mendelian-system-in-britain-1880-1930.pdf

Dominic Berry PhD (2014)

https://www.academia.edu/7608288/WHOLE_THESIS_Genetics_Statistics_and_Regulation_at_the_National_Institute_of_Agricultural_Botany_1919-1969

 

For more information about the JIC seed bank (Germ Plasm Resources Unit) from which Megan sourced her historic wheat samples, see https://www.jic.ac.uk/research/germplasm-resources-unit/

 

For more information on today’s Wheat Improvement programme (a collaboration between five UK research institutes), see https://www.jic.ac.uk/research/wheat-improvement/our-science/

The John Innes Centre is responsible for the Landrace pillar of research.

 

A selection of the exhibition materials Megan designed can be seen permanently on display around Biffen’s desk in the JIC Conference Centre. We plan to re-use the portable elements in this exhibit in future JIC events.

 

 

 

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