Reflecting on a notable career

The request came by telegram. It was 1945, and Dr. Robert G. E. Murray was stationed at Camp Borden, then a tank training regiment. To his surprise, the telegram came from Dr. G. Edward Hall, then, Dean of Medicine at Western University, asking about his interest in teaching bacteriology to medical students.

Having never formally taught a class, nor undertaken formal research, Dr. Murray was unsure. 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.

With an outline of the subject and a few technical helpers, Dr. Murray had to jump in and start teaching. “It was baptism by fire”, he recalled. He began with four lectures and 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.”

Nearly 70 years since Dr. Murray arrived on the scene, the Department of Microbiology and Immunology is celebrating its Diamond Anniversary.  A special event, which includes a symposium, and dinner featuring guest speaker Dr. David Colby is being held at Western University on May 1.  

“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. 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 and celebrate their collective achievements.

Following that 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 microscopy 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 more growth when it moved to the University campus in 1965-1966.

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 Founding President, from 1951-1952, remaining an active member of the Society throughout his scientific career. He was elected an honorary member in 1985. Dr. Murray 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. He was president of the American Society for Microbiology from 1972-1973 and 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 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.”

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 noted.