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Reference: Membera Profile, Microscopical Society of Southern California Newsletter, 4 (9): 182-188, September 1999.

Members Profile

(LEFT) Photo taken by Joe Barabe at McCrone Research Institute in Chicago as Brian Ford was awarded the inaugural Dr. August Kohler medal by the State Microscopical Society of Illinois. (RIGHT) At the moment of discovering Leeuwenhoek's specimens in the vaults of the Royal Society.

Brian was always fascinated by science. The earliest pictures of him as an infant show him examining flowers and drawing steam trains. He used to collect specimens of sand, butterflies, and pressed plants from an early age, and first looked through a microscope when he was nine years old. His father William, an engineer, used to purchase a Stilton cheese each Christmas, and when the young Brian showed his father the cheese mites on the surface, that cheese was placed in the garden in the rain where the birds ate it. After seeing those little organisms, Brian’s father never ate Stilton again. As a boy, Brian lived in a large house in North London. It had an orchard and extensive grounds, and had battlements at one end. He used to study wild life and even mapped the district by hand at the age of ten.
At the King’s School, Peterborough, Brian had A. G. Lowndes as his science tutor. As a young man, Lowndes had taught Sir Peter Medawar. Since then he had worked as a research zoologist at the Marine Biological Research laboratory in Plymouth, and took a sabbatical at King’s to act as a science tutor. When he offered to give Brian science tuition, his father protested that education cost enough already, but Lowndes said he did not propose to charge anything. It was this tuition that introduced Brian to microbiology, and also to the name of Leeuwenhoek. By the time he was sixteen, Brian was building micrographic cameras from wood and metal, and some of the pictures he took with those basic cameras have since been published. The Van Nostrand Scientific Encyclopedia, for example, has included some of his teenage pictures for over thirty years.

When the family moved to Cardiff, Brian soon became acquainted with the science departments at Cardiff University. He was collecting cultures of bacteria by this time, and developing enthusiasms for rock and roll. With two brothers Geoff and Dave Edmunds he used to play rock keyboards, and performed in London and the provinces and on television. In fact, his first TV appearance at the age of 22 was not as a biologist, but as a pianist. Brian played Albert Ammons’ ‘Shout for Joy’, a great piano blues number, in a series presented by the popular singer Donald Peers. Among the other people who appeared in the program was a young singer named Tom Jones, also making his first-ever television appearance. Dave Edmunds is now based in Los Angeles and produced many of the rock greats, including Roy Orbison and the Everley brothers.

(LEFT) Brian and wife Jan, at a pub in Grantchester near Cambridge. (RIGHT) On Sky News television, October 1999.

Brian had a particular interest in cryptogams at the time, amassing a fine collection of ferns and being cited as an authority on locations in the standard texts. Instead of immediately going to university, Brian took a post at the Medical Research Council in ‘the most junior position you can imagine’, as he now says, working under Professor Scott Thompson. He did work on bacterial sensitivity and frog physiology and studied histopathology. He now has huge collections of preparations of human tissue specimens that he has prepared over the years. At the same time, he began his studies of blood coagulation. Brian’s discovery of the penderocyte in clotting blood was heralded in the medical press and in the newspapers as an epoch-making discovery, and it featured (opposite a picture sent back from the lunar surface) as one of the year’s leading discoveries in the 1968 International Yearbook of Science. Brian did not want to go to university, believing it to be cause of too much conformity in science. He believed that real science was basically a rebellious occupation, while the schools and universities simply encouraged students to conform. Instead, while he was at the MRC he also took on a commission to write a weekly newspaper column on science. Thus he became a newspaper columnist by the time he was twenty.

However, Brian was meeting still more of the university people through his work at the MRC and decided on the spur of the moment that he would go to university, after all. It was only a few days before the first day of the semester, and everyone said it wasn’t possible to start at such short notice. Brian had made up his mind, however, and went personally to see the Director of Education about getting a grant, and also to the University here they found him a place at the last minute. Brian’s family were displeased at his decision to study biology, rather than engineering, which may explain why he received no parental support for his studies. Instead, he was writing his weekly newspaper column and performing in his own ‘Rhythm and Blues Spot’ at a night-club twice a week. Soon he was writing larger feature articles on special topics, and was invited to contribute to radio programs explaining his views on science. Brian wrote many pioneering leader-page articles on topics like genetic modification and environmental conservation while still in twenties, and when such subjects were highly unfashionable. Brian always spent a lot of time at the seaside, and prepared a detailed floral and structural map of Sully Island. He was also commissioned to carry out an ecological survey when in his early twenties, anticipating developments of subsequent decades.

(LEFT) Working with a palmtop on the train. (RIGHT) With old friend Joe Brown, rock and country musician, on German TV.

Brian made many enduring friends at university but he did not really care for the need to conform to what he felt were ‘old-fashioned’ scientific ideas, and to learn by rote. One of his semesters was devoted to the phycomycete fungi, but Brian had already learned about those in his teens and was keen to do research. In the end he left without graduating to set up a private laboratory of his own and by the time his friends were graduating he was already popular on radio and television and publishing many articles on science. While still in his twenties he gave vent to his dissatisfaction in our understanding of the role of bacteria, not by protesting, but more positively, by writing a textbook Microbiology and Food. It became a best seller and was widely cited in the United States as a source of new ideas. From his private laboratory he did research for the university, including polarimetry on plastics, methods of breeding locusts, and the microscopy of algal reproduction. At this time he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society.

The research on blood brought Brian for the first time to the Royal Society in London, and in his twenties he lectured in their meeting room in Burlington House, Piccadilly, on blood coagulation mechanisms at a symposium organized by the British Microcirculation Society. Since then he has been a regular visitor to the Royal Society, recently as after-dinner speaker at functions for Stephen Jay Gould and also for the former editor of New Scientist. Brian has known many of their Presidents, and it was during the presidency of Sir Andrew Huxley that Brian was invited to consult the original Leeuwenhoek letters. His momentous discovery of the original specimens after more than 300 years is one of the most important developments in the study of the history of the microscope.

Brian continued to conjure up major new theories, proposing that life on earth began as prebiotic molecules in outer space, a theory that has remained popular at Cardiff ever since, and advancing the idea that we can best study multicellular organisms by examining the cells of which they are composed. In Microbiology and Food he first wrote of ‘mankind as microbe’, and the idea is central to his recent book Genes, the Fight for Life. The British publication Laboratory News recently wrote that this was ‘a wonderful book’. Also in his twenties, Brian began diplomatic work that was to prove highly influential. He traveled widely in Europe, for example he was in Czechoslovakia when the Russians invaded in 1968 and photographs taken in East Germany show him in earnest debate with the Russian officers. Brian soon came to the attention of the East German authorities, and he negotiated the publication of a supplement in The Times of London under the heading of the German Democratic Republic. Official approval for this was obtained from the British government, and this was the first document in the bibliography of détente. Subsequently, the East German authorities opened wartime their archives to him, and Brian was also allowed to read the top-security files from the Allied invasions of scientific institutes at the end of World War II. The result was his very first book, German Secret Weapons, which soon became a classic. This book has been in print ever since it was first published more than thirty years ago.

(LEFT) With friend of 30 years, Sir Johnn Maddox, distinguished former editor of Nature with whom he has chaired many meetings. (RIGHT) Brian and Jan last week discussing Brian's monthly magazine column with Peter Boizot, the proprietor, at Kettner's restaurant in Soho, a former haunt of Oscar Wilde.

Brian analyzed voice patterns, and his research on speech was published and used by the British government when drawing up laws on the use of tape-recorded evidence. More recently still, Brian’s views on the spread of BSE were quoted by the British Labour Party, and this report is still on their web site. Brian has also prepared scientific reports for the European Union in Brussels, and is currently editing a book on the History of the Institute of Biology in London. Another of his diplomatic projects was the introduction of biohazard legislation around the world. During his work with the MRC, Brian had been concerned about the lack of safety regulations covering the handling of dangerous bacteria. He published a paper in Nature and another in the New Law Journal, setting out his requirements for legal controls. The ideas were widely quoted in America and Britain (for instance, there was a leading article and a large interview with Brian published in The Times). As a result of his campaigning, his proposals have been made into laws around the world. He also succeeded in having the sale of opiate-containing medicines banned in Britain. Brian’s work on head lice, published in the medical journals, resulted in better control of outbreaks and the louse page on his web site is very popular with surfers.

Brian worked on the mucous coating of Spirogyra, on the chromosomes of Scilla (of which he took particularly beautiful micrographs) and on the hibernation of aquatic protozoa including Spirostomum. His beautifully colored studies of snowflakes appeared in references works at the time, and he used one to make his first personal Christmas card. The family greetings cards Brian’s many friends receive each Christmas have continued ever since. Brian continued to play rhythm and blues throughout his twenties, and his enthusiasm for the arts led him to launch the first course on science and technology for art students. His twice-weekly lectures are still remembered by the students, many of whom went on to become successful artists and designers.

(LEFT) Examining a microscope with Stuart Warter at his home in California. (RIGHT) With Ken Gregory at home in his library at Long Beach.

It was also in his twenties that Brian was first invited to lecture to the annual Inter Micro meetings, organized each year by the McCrone Research Institute. For some 15 years he has given an annual keynote lecture in Chicago, now known as ‘An Evening with Brian’, and widely regarded as one of the annual highlights of the microscopists’ calendar. Brian has lectured round the world for the British Council, and now speaks frequently across the United States. He has prepared diplomatic reports, provided forensic reports for the courts, and has published on the problems graduates face in working in science. As a problem solver he has worked in many areas. Those that have featured on television include ‘divine’ visions, forged photographs and the cause of the slippage of coal slurry at Aberfan. He evolved methods of recovering nitrate from water using microbial recycling, and published a new method of re-scheduling air flights that provide an answer to jet-lag. He showed that the reason plants drop their leaves is not just to protect themselves in winter, but it is also their way of shedding waste materials. They concentrate materials like heavy metals in their leaves and then shed them, as a way of purifying the system. Brian argued that this offered a mechanism of cleansing polluted soils, and published the idea in a number of lectures and papers, including one in Nature. The idea took off, and there are now hundreds of organizations around the world using his idea to recover soils that are contaminated by heavy metals.

The shape of modern science has been influenced by Brian, partly through his political activities but also through his hard work on voluntary committees. He has been a Councillor at bodies including the Linnean Society of London and the Institute of Biology. At the Linnean he is in charge of the microscopes, as Honorary Surveyor of Scientific Instruments, and at the Institute he is compiling their official history for publication in 2000. He was also the first British President of the European Union of Science Journalists Associations, Brussels, and Chairman of the Science and Technical Authors Committee in London. Currently he chairs several charitable Trusts, and is on the Council of several bodies at Cambridge University.

(LEFT) With Larry Albright in his Venice, CA, laboratory. (RIGHT) Dinner with some members of the MSSC. L to R. Brian Ford, Ken Gregory, Maurice Greeson, Gary Legel, Jim Solliday, Mrs. Stuart Warter, Stuart Warter.

Few people, apart from Brian, were surprised when he was elected a Fellow of his University, Cardiff. This is the greatest honor they can bestow. He has also served as a member of the University Court for years. Currently he is teaching on-line at the Open University in England, where is the first Royal Literary Fellow in Scientific Authorship. The European Space Agency recently asked him to design a microscope to go into space, and he has now produced the prototype design which is currently under construction at Brunel University. It is due to go into orbit in a year’s time. Brian’s research has been reported and reviewed in Nature, New Scientist and the British Medical Journal. He is one of the few people whose work has been reported in Scientific American, whose books have been reviewed there, and who has contributed to the pages of that world-renowned journal. Many of Brian’s ideas have changed the way we look at science. His book The Revealing lens, Mankind and the Microscope was the first best-selling book that discussed the microscope and its place in society. Brian’s pioneering ideas on the role of microorganisms were popularised in Microbe Power (1976), which remains in print in editions ranging from the USA to Japan. This was one of the first books on modern science to seize the imagination of the public, as well as the world of science, around the world. Meanwhile, his critical studies of the direction of modern science were published in Nonscience (1971) and Cult of the Expert (1982), both books being translated and published overseas. He has traveled widely in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, India, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands, and is a regular visitor to North America where he lectures coast to coast.

(ABOVE) With MSSC members on the wharf at Seal Beach, CA. L to R. Ken Gregory, Larry Albright, Brian Ford, Jim Solliday, Stuart Warter, Mrs Stuart Warter, Maurice Greeson.

He has delivered keynote addresses at meetings world-wide, from King’s College, Cambridge to the University of Hobart, Tasmania. His broadcasts resulted in nomination for the Prix Italia by the BBC, and he gained their highest-ever Audience Reaction Index for one of his two-hour science programs. He has worked on films (advising Val Guest, producer of 20,000 Suspects) and produced and directed The Fund, a film on cancer research. His books have been published in about 100 editions around the world, and they include general works (e.g. 101 Questions about Science) and volumes written for children (e.g. his First Encyclopedia of Science, which sold 70,000 copies in a month). He pioneered his concept of a holistic approach to science in a leading article for Nature more than twenty years ago, and his interdisciplinary research has always included the presentation of science to the public through radio and television.

(LEFT) With microscopes at the MSSC October meeting. (RIGHT) Hillside in Mandeville Canyon on the Albright Estate.

Within the last year he has carried out an extensive lecture schedule, including a millennium lecture to the Society for the Application of Research at Cambridge University. Brian featured again this year in the BBC highly intellectual show ‘Round Britain Quiz’, where he partners lady Antonia Fraser, and he had two new books published. Genes, the Fight for Life (Cassells) spells out his theory that multicellular organisms are rich in the behaviour of the single cells of which they are comprised. Sensitive Souls – due out under a different title in the United States during the year 2000 – argues that all life has a language, if only we took the trouble to decipher it. The microorganisms about which he is so passionate play starring roles in both books. He continues to find time to appear widely on radio and TV, often commenting on the progress of mad cow disease. Brian’s book on that subject has become the standard reference work in London and Brussels, yet it was researched and written in jusr six and a half days. Work began on 3 April 1996, and by 29 April printed and bound copies were going out to the shops. This set an all-time record in scientific publishing, and nobody is surprised to see Brian appearing on the title page of the Guinness Book of World Records 2000. He advises them on accuracy, notably in science and medicine. Brian’s recent trips have taken him to the United States (twice), across the South of France, to Amsterdam and Leiden, Netherlands. He is part of the small group who have changed the world, and numbers people like Stephen Jay Gould, Sir David Attenborough, Lyn Margulis and Dame Miriam Rothschild among his friends. Yet Brian is above all a family man, and has been devoted to raising six children. He and his wife Jan live in an eighteenth century thatched farm-house in the Cambridgeshire countryside. The range of visitors has been amazing – not only knights and lords, but with many Californian scientists among them.

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