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Pride reigns as department celebrates 75 years

The Department of Microbiology and Immunology is turning 75 and a major celebration is being planned. On May 1, faculty, staff, alumni and students will come together to reflect on the tremendous achievements of the department and to discuss its future.

The event will feature a symposium, wine and cheese and celebratory dinner. Click here to learn more about the event.

A few of the special guests who are taking part in the event are alumni Barbara Burleigh, associate professor, Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, Harvard School of Public Health; Malcolm Finkelman, director, Clinical Development, Associates of Cape Cod, Inc.; Thalia Assuras, principal, Assuras Communications LLC, and Brad Thompson, President and CEO, Oncolytics Biotech Inc. Meanwhile, former and current faculty members including Rodney Dekoter, Sara Galsworthy, Bryan Heit and Alp Sener will participate in the afternoon Symposium. 

Dr. Bhagirath Singh, professor and acting chair, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, believes the event on May 1 offers the perfect opportunity to connect alumni, faculty and staff to celebrate their collective achievements.

Dr. Robert Murray, professor emeritus, will also take part in the day’s activities. Joining the Department in 1945, Dr. Murray has been a major contributor to the Department’s growth and the study of microbiology. “It’s quite thrilling to be able to celebrate this anniversary, and pretty nice to have been here for most of the 75 years of the department,” he said. 

Dr. Murray first learned about the department when he received a telegram from Dr. G. Edward Hall, then Dean of Medicine at Western University. The telegram inquired about Dr. Murray’s interest in teaching bacteriology to medical students. At the time, Dr. Murray was based at Camp Borden, with a tank training regiment.

Having never formally taught a class, nor undertaken formal research, Dr. Murray was uncertain if this was the right path to take. A second telegram followed with an invitation to visit London and tour the facilities. A short while later, the deal was sealed and Dr. Murray was hired.

“It was baptism by fire,” recalled Dr. Murray. With only an outline of the subject and a few technical helpers, he began by teaching four lectures per week, four labs per week for a period of 12 weeks. “We were all going to be microbiologists and we had to get started. We had no money; we just used what we had.”

Following the first 12 weeks of teaching, Dr. Murray stayed on with the Department. In 1948, he took on the role of Acting Head for the Department and a year later was appointed to Professor and Department Head. It was then that he recruited Dr. Carl F. Robinow, a senior scientist. This allowed for a focus in microscopy and research in microbial cytology and fungal cytology.

The department continued to grow under Dr. Murray’s leadership. The first graduate student, Dr. Fred Hagey, started his PhD in 1950. Electron micrscopy was added in 1954. A year later, Dr. PC Fitz-James was appointed the first National Research Council (Medical Research Council) Associate. He brought with him a focus on biochemical cytology. 

The Department experienced even more growth under Dr. Murray when it moved to the University campus in 1965-66.

“Dr. Murray’s research and service to the study of Microbiolgy has brought international recognition to this Department, the School, Western and Canada,” said Dr. Singh. “He has been an inspiration to all those who have been associated with the Department throughout the years.”

In addition to his research and duties as a Chair, Dr. Murray has given endlessly to the study of microbiology on the national and international stage.

He was chairman of the Founding Committee for the Canadian Society of Microbiologists from 1950-1951 and was Founding President from 1951-1952, remaining an active member of the Society throughout his scientific career and was elected an honorary member in 1985.

He was a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Bacteriology from 1951-1954, and again from 1980-1986. He was appointed the founding editor of the Canadian Journal of Microbiology from 1954-1960. Dr. Murray was president of the American Society for Microbiology from 1972-1973 and was elected an honorary member of the Society for Applied Bacteriology in 1988.

Inheriting a passion for taxonomy from his father, Dr. Murray joined the Bergey's Manual of Determinative Bacteriology Board of Trustees, and moved to Chairman of the Board of Trustees from 1976-1990.

Dr. Murray's research in bacterial cytology, structure and function, and systematics and taxonomy led to the receipt of many awards and honours throughout his career.

It has been said that Dr. Murray brought microbiology in Canada to the forefront when he was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Canada, honouring his lifetime contributions to the development of microbiology.

Other honours include the Flavelle Medal, an appointment to the Royal Society of Canada and honorary degrees from Western University, the University of Guelph and McGill University. 

Today, Dr. Murray remains active in the department as a Professor Emeritus. A few days a week you can find him in his office, reading up on the latest studies or attending graduate student or departmental lectures. 

Despite the tremendous impact he has had on the study of microbiology and immunology and the development of the Department, he remains most proud of the many students who have graduated from the department and have made their own mark in the research world.

He’s proud of the Department too. “It has grown enormously over the years, and it is well known for its great work, and “I am pretty happy about that,” he said.