A Short History of the School

School building


After several years of planning, the School of Molecular and Microbial Biosciences was formed in 2001 by the amalgamation of the Departments of Biochemistry (Faculty of Science) and Microbiology (Faculty of Agriculture), both situated in the Biochemistry building, G08 (now renamed to the Biochemistry and Microbiology Building in honour of the former departments).

The School was renamed the School of Molecular Bioscience on February 11, 2010.

Foundation of the Department of Biochemistry

In 1988 the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Sydney celebrated the 50th anniversary of its foundation. Two particular people played major roles in the Department's foundation. One was Samuel McCaughey, who had come to Australia from Ireland in 1856. He went originally to Victoria, and in 1860 came to NSW where he became a very successful grazier and amassed a fortune by the time he died in 1910. Evidently, Samuel McCaughey was famed for his hospitality, but never married. A considerable portion of his estate was left to the University of Sydney for the Senate to determine how the income from the bequest would be used. Several suggestions for use of the money were made, one being that a chair of Railway Science be established! Fortunately, one of the suggestions that was approved was the endowment of an Associate Professorship in Physiology, to be filled by a biochemist. In 1921 Henry Priestly, from Yorkshire, was appointed McCaughey Associate Professor of Biochemistry. He was that other person, who certainly played the more vital role in setting-up the present Department of Biochemistry. Priestly was keen to see Biochemistry recognised as a separate discipline and not just part of Medicine; and, as was happening in the UK around the same time, he was eventually successful in this endeavour. In 1938 he was made McCaughey Professor of Biochemistry, within a joint Department of Physiology and Biochemistry. In December of the same year the decision was made to establish a separate Department of Biochemistry. Priestly retired in 1948 and, as stated in Len Lawler's article (1) in the Centenary Book of the Faculty of Medicine, he left a "small, cohesive Department, adequately housed and equipped but under-staffed and struggling to cope with the post-war teaching load".

Historical developments

Department Heads and Departmental Buildings: 1949-1989
Jack Still was appointed to the McCaughey Chair in June 1949 and was Head of Department until he retired at the end of 1976. He was originally an under-graduate in the Department and had completed a PhD at Cambridge. Gerry Wake, a graduate of the Department, has been McCaughey Professor of Biochemistry from 1977. A second Chair was established, and filled by Keith Taylor in October 1975. Taylor resigned the second Chair in May 1979, and this was filled by Philip Kuchel from Newcastle (medical graduate from Adelaide, PhD in Physical Biochemistry from ANU) in August 1980. The Headships of the Department since its foundation are listed below: - 1939-1948 Henry Priestly 1949-1975 Jack Still 1977-March 1979 Keith Taylor April 1979-Present ~2 yr rotations Gerry Wake and Philip Kuchel. At the time of its foundation the Department was housed in the Old Medical School (Anderson Stuart Building) and by the early 1950s the space available was grossly inadequate. Even from before that time various schemes had been proposed for rehousing Biochemistry. In early 1973 the Department moved into a new seven storey building, one floor being occupied by the Department of Microbiology. Many of the current staff and graduates (particularly those who did higher degrees) would recall the trying conditions in the old 'Annexe' building during hot summers in the 1950s to early 70s. It was very difficult to keep water baths down to 37_C, and on one occasion the fire sprinklers in the roof were activated because of the heat - no fire! Perhaps we deserve our current accomodation of relative luxury. The present facilities are undoubtedly excellent, due largely to the efforts of Professor Jack Still who was the driving force behind the construction of the new building. We can keep good track of its age - it was finished in the same year as the Sydney Opera House.

The CSIRO Physical Chemical Unit and the Human Nutrition Unit
In 1950 the CSIRO Division of Food Preservation set up its Physical Chemistry Unit in the Department, under the leadership of Hugh Mckenzie. The Unit was particularly interested in the application of techniques such as moving boundary electrohnporesis, diffusion and ultracentirfugation to the study of proteins. It remained until 1964 and had a signficant impact on the future research directions of the Department. The Human Nutrition Unit was set up in 1978 upon the arrival of the Foundation Boden Professor of Human Nutrition, Stewart Truswell. This development was made possible by a generous gift from Alexander Boden, a Sydney industrialist and book publisher. Truswell was previously Professor of Nutrition at Queen Elizabth College, University of London. While the Unit is fairly autonomous, Truswell (now retired) and several of his staff are full members of the Department and they are making a valuable contribution to its teaching and research.

Reference

L.W.J. Lawler. In "Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine. eds J.A. Young, A.J. Sefton and N. Webb. pp 319-325, Sydney University Press, 1984. Part of the description of the Department was provided by R.G. Wake for the Australian Biochemical Society Newsletter (1990) 21, (2) 2-5.