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Professor Julian William Thomas Wimpenny


Julian William Thomas Wimpenny leaning on railings

Julian Wimpenny, microbiologist, academic and researcher – 27 March 1936 - 7 January 2016.

Julian Wimpenny was a leading microbiologist of his generation, using his many talents to promptly embrace new ideas and ingeniously provide new solutions to old problems by virtue of his broad laboratory skills.

As adept at glass blowing as in devising, fabricating, and setting up complex control systems interfaced to fermentation equipment, he was the consummate hands-on research laboratory scientist. A first-rate lecturer and supervisor for young students, he was able to enthuse and communicate these facilities to the successive generations privileged to work with him.

Pure monocultures of microbes growing in liquid suspensions never entirely satisfied him and his application of his own novel techniques revolutionised and re-envigorated the subject. This innovative approach propelled him from the traditional era of shake flask and continuous culture microbiology to his newly invented gradient plates and ‘gradostat’ devices, providing simultaneously multiple graded environments for selection and optimised growth of microorganisms. Microelectrode measurements on bacterial colonies on solid media led to analogies with growth of tissues. Using the constant depth thin-film fermenter led him to consider the problems of surface growth of mixed populations in biofilms in the real world of dental plaque and serious problems of microbial metal corrosion.

His interests increasingly extended into microbial ecology, not only in laboratory models, but also to spoilage in the food industry. Experiments on microbial interactions and their survival in the natural environment, developed into exciting ideas about possibilities for the growth of ‘extremophiles’ in space. Julian’s last written works were a comprehensive review on biofilms and a survey of the limits to microbial life.

The instigator of the Computer Users’ Group of the Society of General Microbiology (now The Microbiology Society), Julian was also a founder member of The Biofilm Club with its frequent meetings since 1993 at Gregynog House, the University of Wales conference centre, near Newtown; Julian’s infectious enthusiasm always ensured the success of new enterprises. He led the editing of the series of volumes that resulted from these meetings.

Julian’s birthplace was at Lowestoft, Suffolk, where his father was the Director of The Fisheries Laboratory. Educated as a boarder at the Leighton Park Quaker School, Julian then spent a year at the Sorbonne reading French Literature. Having gained a place at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, he read Life Sciences before studying for a PhD on the biochemistry of isoniazid inhibition of Mycobacterium tuberculosis at Guys’ Hospital Medical School  in London. A postdoctoral position at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, followed, on the regulation by O2 of the metabolic pathways of Escherichia coli. Several seminal papers came from this work, and these have served as a basis for much of the research of several generations of young scientists. Julian then joined the newly established Microbiology Department at the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, as an Honorary Lecturer in 1965.

The first two sessions of Julian’s position were spent supervising student research projects at the Oxford University Biochemistry Department as a member of the Medical Research Council’s Group for Microbial Structure and Function under the Directorship of Professor David E. Hughes. This group was housed on the ground floor of the Cardiff Mining Department in Newport Road, Cardiff (now part of the School of Physics and Astronomy, Cardiff University) and was immediately well served by state-of-the-art instrumentation from Oxford due to the generosity of Professor Sir Hans Krebs. When after five years the Group was fully incorporated into the College, Julian became a Lecturer along with four colleagues, David Lloyd, Terry Coakley, Al Venables, and Alan Griffiths. With the previous members of the Botany Department, Ted Hill, Ann Williams (Eddington) and Geoff Callely and this team led the Cardiff Microbiology Department to train a host of industrially, environmentally and medically based scientists, including future 45 full professors. Apart from his sabbaticals in Germany and Indiana, Julian’s entire academic career was spent at Cardiff.

His move to Cardiff enabled Julian to continue enjoy sailing, a pastime he had enjoyed at Dartmouth, where he had made extensive explorations with his life-long friend Rod Bennett, also his skiing companion. He was able to extend his interest in gardening to the cultivation of Rhododendrons and fruit trees after he moved to Trellech in Monmouthshire; he also kept bees. His most prized achievement there was the publication for the Parish Council of a handsomely produced Millennium Volume “Trellech 2000”.

Described by his mother as being ‘cursed with facility’, it is true that he could turn his hand to anything. His hobbies including pottery, stained glass, and art with pen and paintbrush, all of which brought him great pleasure. He belonged to the Wye Valley Arts Society and exhibited his paintings in galleries from Tintern and Monmouth to Penarth and Cardiff. He loved music and his tastes were eclectic, from the Goldberg variations and the works of Delius to performances by George Melly. Julian once said that Radio 3 alone was worth the TV/radio licence. His own performances at the Christmas parties included the reading of humorous, and even for the liberated 1970s, scurrilous, limericks composed by him and about the sometimes absent Departmental members.

A dedicated family man, Julian greatly enjoyed spending time with his first wife Jan, now living in New Hampshire, and their children, Nicola and Kirsten, now both in Arizona. Nicola has two daughters, Jaycey and Caitlin, his 'American grandchildren'.

At the Microbiology Department in Cardiff, Lee met Julian, and they married in 1981. At that time, Lee was presciently researching the possibilities for recycled chicken manure (Anaerobic Digestion was a major Departmental enterprise). With their three children, Ross, Joshua and Anna growing up at Orchard Cottage in Trelech, Julian and Lee were in their element spending lots of time tending the 1.5-acre garden, on various building projects, cycling and hiking in the Black Mountains, and instilling in their children a love of learning, science and the outdoors from a very early age. With the arrival of Bethan, his 'Welsh granddaughter' Julian was able to recapture the delights of watching and interacting with a child growing up.

Always smiling, Julian was a kind and gentle man; many have spoken of his wide-ranging interests and enthusiasms and consider him as an (nowadays rare) example of a truly renaissance figure. He retired as Professor from the Cardiff School of Biosciences in 2006. We miss his friendship, jovial company and words of wisdom, but he leaves us with many fond memories.

David Lloyd and Lee Wimpenny, with acknowledgement to Dr J. Barbara Evans for her help.