Topsham Church and the Service of Thanskgiving for the Life of Professor Herbert Macgregor
My Tribute to Professor Herbert Macgregor (22nd April 1933 – 22nd July 2018) delivered at his Thanksgiving Service on 13th August 2018
I am humbled to be here today to pay tribute to the wonderful scientist, leader and mentor, Herbert Macgregor. As a fellow cytogeneticist, Herbert has been right at the top of my field, and despite the great sadness, I am happy to be able to give you some thoughts about his remarkable and productive life. I first came across Herbert’s name in my earliest undergraduate studies with other cytogeneticists, Carl Swanson and Hugh Rees, learning of Herbert’s discovery (with Mick Callan) of the fact that each of the chromosomes within a cell nucleus – 46 of them in the case of human – contained a single DNA molecule, 100s of millions of DNA bases long, from end to end (Callan and Macgregor, 1958). Today, this is such a tenet of cell biology and genomics that it is accepted as ‘obvious’: the importance of the result supported by detailed experimental work stands equal with the other key discoveries of the late 1950s and 1960s, including the DNA helix, the genetic code, transcription, and semi-conservative replication of DNA. Herbert was a pioneer with techniques, using them and developing model systems to address many novel questions throughout his career. His book from the early 1980s, “Working with Animal Chromosomes” is still the standard reference for chromosome preparations and regularly used in my lab, while his 1993 volume, Introduction to Cytogenetics, is another standard science for interpreting chromosome form and behaviour, and appreciating its evolutionary significance.
I first met Herbert at a chromosome conference in 1982 organized in Lübeck, Germany. Herbert’s talk was a highspot of the meeting – one of those annotated with three stars in my programme. Like so many of Herbert’s papers, the title is as thoughtful and current now as when the paper was presented and written up, “The evolutionary consequences of major genomic changes”: remember this was long before the science of genomics was the huge industry that it has become. Other papers had titles such as “High resolution map” or “Application of the technique”, or discussed karyotypes and chromosome morphology. Herbert’s paper, based on his own detailed investigations of the chromosomes in one of his favoured groups, the newts and other amphibians, makes conclusions and generates ideas that are still current and important today.
Two years later, Herbert and Alma organized an important meeting of the British Society of Developmental Biology, BSDB, in Leicester, where Herbert was Professor and Head of the Department of Zoology from 1970. This was one of my first conference talks, and I remember well the exceptional organization and range of exciting talks on the topic “Genes, chromosomes and computer models in developmental biology”. At that time 34 years ago, “Computer models” were unheard of in chromosome biology, but the contents of the volume are truly visionary. Herbert and Alma’s words in the introduction, “the frontier of this symposium lies between the biologists and computer scientists, between biology and biochemistry and mathematics and modelling” well summarize the range of Herbert’s research and its implications for the rest of his career. This 1984 meeting was my first visit to Leicester where I am now based, and there were some strange events around the conference. I remember ending up in a pub with a number of the most notable conference participants, including Adrian Bird and Chris Bostock, and witnessing still the most vicious fight I have ever seen, as well as one or two unusual conference participants!
I continued to follow with much excitement Herbert’s work, now linking gene expression with its physical manifestation as loops coming out from a special type of chromosome – lampbrush chromosomes – in amphibians and birds. This research on the arrangement and expression of DNA sequences in the genomes had major implications for molecular biology and the functioning of cell nuclei, as well as for evolution and developmental biology. Once again, this research is now part of the unquestioned canon of scientific knowledge. All through his work, from his very first papers in the late 1950s, Herbert was able to integrate microscopy with molecular biology – something that is today even more important than it was 50 years ago.
I got to know Herbert much better from the early 1990s, when he invited me to join him in a new publishing venture, setting up the Journal Chromosome Research, now in its 25th successful year. With Herbert’s vision, it has gained a distinctive niche in a publishing area, long before the huge expansion in numbers of publications the last decade. I gained enormously from seeing his firm but helpful interactions with the series of publishers we worked through, and carefully thought-through handling of the interactions with authors and editors to build the reputation of the journal. We were now in close contact, not only with publishing but with respect to our research and the chromosome research environment. So I discussed with him about 1999 that my then institute was in an uncomfortable state of upheaval, and about any academic positions coming up? Retiring around that time, but still maintaining his lab., he asked the right people and soon after, a rather specialized advertisement appeared in a newspaper, sandwiched between adverts for the chief fire officer for B&Q (a chain of UK DIY shops), and head groundsman for the Leicester City Football Club. So I moved to Leicester, and his wise advice was so valuable to me. Most notably, Herbert valued the exceptional people he worked with, particularly among the support staff. He invariably appreciated their immense contributions, showing the importance of their roles, and the impact they could have. In this way, he was able to build an extraordinary and productive world-class Department, and I saw the remaining atmosphere he fostered in Leicester. Within the environment he fostered in his Department, he had no truck with nonsense from administrators and senior colleagues, and was forthright in his robust views. I should also add that he held the most wonderful Christmas parties, with several dozen people from the wider Department.
Herbert cared deeply about his teaching and undergraduates and gave me extremely valuable advice as I took over in teaching some of the introductory genetics and biology courses. His lecturing style was immensely approachable but still challenging, and I was not surprised to hear he continued outreach and learning activities through U3A here in Exeter. Among other things, he maintained a remarkable website here at the University of Exeter on lampbrush chromosomes, providing a resource for all – not least with its progressive CC-BY open accessibility without copyright.
Personally, it was always wonderful and memorable to meet Herbert. At the time of moving to Leicester, we stayed with him and Alma, at his farm, The Leys. He had many musical, technical and nautical interests that were always a pleasurable digression to discuss. So many characteristics of Herbert come through from every interaction I had with him, and I am very happy to have been able to pay this tribute. Hebert was, or course, very proud of his Scottish Heritage, and retained his musical accent that was so easy to listen to, carrying erudition and distinction in its tones. I do remember a meeting that ended with a Burns Night supper, where we had the privilege of hearing Herbert giving the most authentic recitation of the words of The Bard.
So I will end with some other words that are appropriate from Robbie Burns’ “Epitaph on my Own Friend”:
An honest man here lies at rest,
As e’er God with His image blest:
The friend of man, the friend of truth;
The friend of age, and guide of youth:
Few hearts like his, with virtue warm’d,
Few heads with knowledge so inform’d:
If there’s another world, he lives in bliss;
If there is none, he made the best of this.
Mine was one of four Tributes delivered at Professor Macgregor’s Thanksgiving Service. Others covered his early years including National Service, his Family, and life during his retirement in Topsham, Exeter.
Edits 14/8/18: hyperlinks, explain B&Q as shop.
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