Obituary: Prof John Postgate, microbiologist and author

Prof John Postgate: Eminent scientist known as 'father figure of British microbiology'
Prof John Postgate: Eminent scientist known as 'father figure of British microbiology'
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Born: 24 June, 1922, in London. Died: 22 October, 2014, in Lewes, East Sussex, aged 92.

Emeritus Professor John Postgate was a rare breed of scientist with a number of strings to his bow. He was equally comfortable staring into a microscope, chatting with his scientific brethren, explaining or writing complex scientific research in layman’s terms or playing his cornet, guitar or soprano saxophone in jazz ensembles; he even wrote critical pieces for Jazz Monthly and other publications, although he never learned to read music.

Postgate’s contribution to microbiology cannot be understated. Professor Hermann Bothe of Cologne University said: “We have lost one of the greatest microbiologists of our generation.”

Postgate was described by colleagues as a “father figure of British microbiology”, and his research provided the basis for new practical uses of microbes with his ground-breaking study of bacteria in extreme conditions. His findings contributed to the production of industrially important sulphuric acid, and to converting atmospheric nitrogen into fertiliser for plants.

Born in Pimlico, London, in 1922, John Raymond Postgate was the eldest son of writer Raymond, founder of the Good Food Guide, and Daisy (née Lansbury), private secretary to her father George Lansbury, Labour leader from 1932-35. His younger brother, Oliver, became a well-known animator and producer for British television and narrated the children’s TV series Ivor the Engine and Bagpuss.

Educated in a number of private schools in north London, John enjoyed making explosions in the garden shed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he progressed to Balliol College, Oxford, where he was awarded a first-class degree in chemistry. Thereafter, he studied microbiology and biochemistry, before embarking on his PhD on microbial physiology – the resistance of bacteria to sulphonamide drugs. Upon completion in 1948, he married Mary Stewart, an English graduate of St Hilda’s College, Oxford, whom he had met and courted in the intervening years.

Soon after, Postgate obtained a Research Fellowship and began working at the government Chemical Research Laboratory in Teddington, west London, investigating how to use sulphate-reducing bacteria to produce sulphide, which was needed as a source of sulphuric acid for industry.

In a small team of microbiologist led by K R Butlin, Postgate discovered that these bacteria contained an iron-producing protein, cytochrome c3, of a class that had previously been thought to be confined to organisms that required oxygen. The discovery was described as “seminal”.

Cytochromes are iron-containing proteins found in the cells of all air-breathing creatures from bacteria and plants to humans; they were known to be part of the aerobic respiratory apparatus and were widely understood to be absent from anaerobes – non-oxygen breathing organisms.

Postgate’s observation gave rise to the idea of anaerobic respiration and his findings formed the basis of worldwide research on these bacteria and their cytochromes.

With a post-war world sulphur shortage damaging British industry, in 1951, Postgate and Butlin were sent to Cyrenaica, Libya, to collect samples of sulphate-reducing bacteria from lakes in the desert that had deposits of sulphur.

The trip caught the attention and imagination of the press, and the microbiological production of sulphur became Butlin’s pet project, with Postgate advising. Unfortunately, however, the strains isolated were no more effective than the local ones.

Later that year the Teddington lab was disbanded and Postgate joined the Microbial Research Establishment (MRE) in Porton Down, the military science institute near Salisbury, Wiltshire, a facility originally established to study biological warfare. With an inter-disciplinary approach to research, involving chemists, biochemists, bacteriologists, geneticists, physicists and medical staff all focusing on the same problem, Postgate researched the ways in which bacteria survive extreme stresses and made fundamental insights into the survival of bacteria as spores.

Postgate discovered that the “death” of microbes was not as clear cut as scientists had previously thought. Some bacteria that had always been classified as dead were in fact merely dormant and capable of being revived.

He wrote: “For most of this century most microbiologists have thought that the majority of bacteria in mud, soil, sediments and sludges, be they dead or moribund, were out of the picture for all practical purposes. This could be far from the truth. It is a sobering thought that they could be dosing, waiting for the call to leap into activity when a few lookouts sense appropriate change.”

He was promoted Senior Principal Scientific Officer in 1961 and in 1962 Postgate had a spell as a visiting Professor of Microbiology at the University of Illinois.

Upon returning to MRE, Postgate found his remit had changed and so resigned. He joined as assistant director and co-founded the multi-disciplinary Unit for Nitrogen Fixation (UNF), a laboratory funded by the Agricultural Research Council. The unit’s aim was to investigate the methods used by micro-organisms/bacteria to convert atmospheric nitrogen gas into ammonia under ambient conditions, for use in agricultural fertiliser. This process is essential to agricultural productivity and, therefore, to the ability of the ever-increasing human population to feed itself.

The unit settled at the University of Sussex in late 1964, and in 1965 the university appointed Postgate Professor of Microbiology in addition to his UNF position, with only postgraduate teaching duties.

An articulate and concise man, Postgate wrote a number of specialist and popular science books; his clarity of writing is evident in the popular book Microbes and Man (1969), which is still in print after four editions and has been translated into nine languages. Another such publication was The Outer Reaches of Life (1995), which clearly describes to non-scientists the invisible world of microbes and their ability to survive in the most harsh and inhospitable conditions on earth, revealing the remarkable potential and resilience of life itself.

Although as a child, Postgate had found music “a waste of time” at school, as a teenager he discovered jazz, following Duke Ellington and Count Basie among others, and taught himself to play several instruments.

While at university, he had led the Oxford University Dixieland Bandits. Over the years, whenever possible, he formed or joined a number of bands including the university jazz group Sussex Trugs. He also wrote A Plain Man’s Guide to Jazz (1973).

Postgate received many awards including a Royal Society Fellowship in 1977. His last publication was his autobiography, Microbes, Music and Me: A life in Sciences (2013). His wife Mary died in 2008, and he is survived by their three daughters, Selina, Lucy and Joanna.