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Obituary: Professor Noreen Murray CBE FRS FRSE, geneticist

Geneticist who played a major role in the development of gene cloning technology

Professor Noreen Elizabeth Murray, CBE, FRS, FRSE, geneticist.

Born: 26 February, 1935, in Lancashire.

Died: 12 May, 2011, in Edinburgh, aged 76.

Noreen Murray (ne Parker) enjoyed a rural upbringing, initially in the village of Read, near Burnley, Lancashire and from the age of five in Bolton-le-Sands. She attended primary school in Bolton-le-Sands, where her father was headmaster, followed by Lancaster Girls' Grammar School.

The family spent much of their time outdoors, playing tennis, cycling and swimming or rowing on Lake Windermere or on the canal at the bottom of their garden. Noreen loved to climb trees and to help her father in the garden - the beginning of a lifelong love of plants. Her father was a strong disciplinarian, and she and her older brother had a strict but loving upbringing.

Her brother, John Neil Parker, also had a strong influence on her. He was a keen naturalist and he encouraged Noreen to collect pressed flowers and birds' feathers. In her fifth form at school, Noreen studied physics and chemistry, biology not being an option available to her at that stage. Her brother introduced her to the subject, teaching her Mendel's laws and encouraging her to read biology books. Thus, at the age of 15, Noreen changed from thinking of becoming a domestic science teacher to studying biology.

She went on to obtain a BSc in botany at King's College London. Then, for a PhD at the University of Birmingham, she studied the genetics of the fungus, Neurospora, under the supervision of David Catcheside. She performed extensive fine-structure analyses of Neurospora genes and studied the mechanism of genetic recombination, finding evidence for polarised gene conversion.

She occasionally recalled with amusement that, when she first arrived with her luggage at the large house where she was to stay in Birmingham, she was mistaken for a maid going into service. In Birmingham she met her future husband, Kenneth Murray, who was studying for a PhD in chemistry. They married in 1958 and were later to become close scientific collaborators. She continued the Neurospora work during five years as a postdoctoral researcher with David Perkins at Stanford University, California, describing her time there as being outstanding, both the lab and the environment.

When, in 1964, she went to work with Harold Whitehouse in the Botany School, Cambridge, she was shocked that her degrees were not recognised by Cambridge University. She was expected to work for a Cambridge PhD and, during her sixth year as a postdoctoral researcher, she appeared on the photograph of the Cambridge PhD students.

When Noreen took up a post in the MRC unit of molecular genetics in the University of Edinburgh in 1968, she decided to turn her research to systems that were more accessible to molecular studies.She chose to study the phenomenon of restriction-modification in bacteria, using her knowledge of bacteriophage genetics acquired through a collaboration with Frank Stahl. Her husband had begun to determine short DNA sequences at the ends of the lambda genome. She and Ken became excited by the prospect of combining their genetic and molecular skills to identify the DNA sequences that are cleaved by restriction enzymes within the phage lambda genome.

Noreen and Ken were among the first to realise that the ability to cut DNA with restriction enzymes opened up the possibility of joining together different DNA molecules that had been cut in this way, and thereby to clone DNA sequences. Noreen used elegant genetic approaches to modify the chromosome of phage lambda so that it could be used as a DNA cloning vector. She, Ken and their close colleague, Bill Brammar, used these modified bacteriophage to clone defined fragments of DNA from a variety of organisms.

During the 1970s and early 1980s Noreen produced a series of lambda cloning vectors and bacterial strains in which to grow them. These were rapidly adopted by scientists throughout the world, both in academia and in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. She realised at an early stage that the protein products of cloned genes could be expressed in bacterial hosts, and her clever use of the quiescent, lysogenic state of phage lambda allowed the expression of proteins that may be toxic to the bacterium. The high level production of proteins in bacteria is important for academic research and for biomedical and commercial purposes, allowing the development of proteins as therapeutic agents.

The practical aspects of Noreen's work were always supported by scholarly exploration of the biochemical and genetic properties of the systems used, and it is notable that many of her publications have only one or a few authors, because she was generally the main instigator and often the sole technical contributor. In the collaborative work with her husband, Noreen's contributions were clearly identifiable; she being the geneticist, he the biochemist.

She served on many committees, including the executive advisory board of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Council of the Royal Society, the Cabinet Office science and technology honours committee. She was a vice-president of the Royal Society and president of the Genetical Society of Great Britain. She was also a trustee of the Darwin Trust of Edinburgh, a charitable organisation founded by the Murrays to support research in the natural sciences.

In 1988, Noreen was promoted to a personal chair at Edinburgh University, as Professor of Molecular Genetics.Her many contributions to science have been honoured by fellowships of the Royal Societies of Edinburgh and London, membership of the European Molecular Biology Organisation and honorary DScs from the universities of Birmingham, UMIST at Manchester, Warwick, Lancaster, Sheffield and Edinburgh. She was awarded the Gabor Medal of the Royal Society, the AstraZeneca Award of the Biochemical Society, the Nexxus award (jointly with her husband) and, most recently, she received a Royal Medal from the Royal Society of Edinburgh. She was awarded a CBE for services to science in 2002.

Although she had no children, Noreen thought of her students and postdocs as her family. In that case, she had a large family, as she "nurtured" 17 PhD students. She was a great source of inspiration and earned the admiration and affection of all of them.

Noreen was extraordinarily hard-working, and held very high standards not only in her work but also in her personal life. She loved classical music, art and plants. The Murrays' garden was her favourite place to escape to, and it always looked magnificent. Noreen was a good cook, and she and her husband entertained frequently. She also took a great pride in her appearance and was always elegantly and stylishly dressed.

Despite her eminence as a scientist, Noreen was always very unassuming and quietly spoken. However, she was also strong minded and extremely determined. Perhaps her strength of character showed most clearly during her recent illness from motor neurone disease, which caused very rapid and appalling deterioration in her health over about nine months, but she seemed more concerned about her husband's welfare than about herself.

Noreen will be remembered with huge affection and admiration by many, and she will be greatly missed. She is survived by her husband, Professor Sir Kenneth Murray, and her brother and his family, who live in Australia.

 
 
 

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