A fuller account of the history of SGM is given in Society for General Microbiology - Fifty Years On, written by John Postgate. The book marked the Society's golden jubilee in 1995, and much of the material on this web page is derived from the publication. Fifty Years On relates the immense contribution made by individual members, Officers and staff to the development of the Society and its present stature.
The obituary of the first joint secretary of the SGM, Leslie Alfred Allen, is also available below.
The Society for General Microbiology (SGM) was formally inaugurated on 16 February 1945 at a meeting in London. Sir Alexander Fleming was elected as the first President. SGM had its origins in the (then) Society of Agricultural Bacteriologists (founded in 1931): a number of members of that Society had wished to see a broadening of its interests and scope beyond agriculture, to embrace virology, medical and agricultural bacteriology, protozoology and mycology. Originally, the Society had just 241 members. The ‘Society of Agricultural Bacteriologists’ later became Society for Applied Microbiology (SfAM).
The first scientific meeting of the Society took place in the Biochemistry Department at the University of Cambridge on 5 July 1945, and included talks on malaria, flagellates, butanol fermentation and nitrogen fixation in clover root nodules. In 1946, the first of the continuing series of spring symposia was held. That first symposium was on the topic of ‘Virulence’, and in 1949, the symposium on ‘The nature of the bacterial surface’ became the first to be published in book form, a tradition which continued until 2006.
The Society’s first journal, Journal of General Microbiology, later renamed as Microbiology, first appeared in January 1947, and rapidly established an international reputation for the publication of high-quality fundamental research. The founding editors were A.A. (later Sir Ashley) Miles and B.C.J.G. Knight.
The original Society was governed by an elected Committee, with as named Officers the President, General Secretary, Meetings Secretary and Treasurer. Over a period of time, further Officer posts were created to handle specific functions and the Committee was renamed as the SGM Council in 1962.
In addition to the spring and autumn meetings which had run since 1946, winter meetings were introduced in 1963. This programme of three main meetings per year continued until 2001, when the winter meeting was dropped.
In 1966, in recognition of the growing number of submissions on virology to Journal of General Microbiology, the Journal of General Virology (JGV) was founded, with C. Kaplan and P. Wildy as the first editors.
Also in 1966, the Fred Griffith Review Lecture was established, awarded every other year in recognition of long service to the Society.
As early as 1954, a need was seen for some professional support staff, to service the volume of committee business, and an arrangement was made to 'rent' clerical support from the Institute of Biology, at their London offices. In 1967, these staff - then three in number - moved to accommodation at the Biochemical Society offices.
By the end of the 1960s, it was becoming clear that the journals had grown to a size where they could no longer be produced by the efforts of the scientific editors and their secretaries alone, even though the numbers of editors and the sizes of the supporting Editorial Boards had been increased. The decision was taken to set up an independent editorial office with a paid staff to support the scientific editors. This move strongly influenced the decision of the Society to purchase its first premises.
The Society became a registered charity in 1969, to ensure the effective use of its growing income in support of its charitable purpose of 'advancing the art and science of microbiology'.
By the early 1970s, the need for more extensive accommodation was becoming ever more pressing, and in 1971 the Society purchased its own headquarters building, Harvest House. This was located in Reading, within easy reach of London and with good transport connections nationally and internationally. For a while this offered more than enough space, and the Society provided administrative services for a number of other learned societies.
In 1972, in recognition of the acquisition of property and role as an employer of staff, the Society for General Microbiology Limited was formed as a separate company (also a registered charity) to hold the assets and liabilities. (The term 'Limited' was later dropped from the company name in 1995).
The President's Fund, set up in 1972, was the first of a number of Society grant schemes which provide support to members for specific purposes.
For many years, the proceedings of the Society's meetings were published in the Journal of General Microbiology, in the form of abstracts. In 1973, it was agreed that the abstracts would be published separately, in a new publication to be called the Proceedings of the Society for General Microbiology, which would also serve as a house magazine for news, reviews and comment. In 1978, the name was changed to the SGM Quarterly. The publication of the proceedings ceased in 1982, leaving the Quarterly to evolve into a lively and informative publication.
From the end of the 1970s, the Society became increasingly active in making representations to Government and other bodies on financial, organizational and professional matters concerning the progress of microbiological science, and in providing sources of information about microbiological matters of public interest.
The decade saw the introduction of the Fleming Lecture in 1976, awarded for outstanding research in any branch of microbiology by a microbiologist in the early stages of their career.
In 1981, SGM became the publisher of JGM and JGV in its own right; previously, the journals had been published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Society.
In the Spring of 1984, the Society held its 100th meeting. A double symposium was held at the University of Warwick, entitled The Microbe 1984: part 1 was devoted to viruses, and part 2 to prokaryotes and eukaryotes. Afterwards, the Society dined in Warwick Castle, the dinner taking the form of a mock mediaeval feast.
Two new Prize Lectures were introduced during the decade. 1989 saw the introduction of the biennial Colworth Prize Lecture focussing on applied microbiology. The short-lived Kathleen Barton-Wright Memorial Lecture, awarded jointly with the then Institute of Biology and the Society for Applied Microbiology started in 1986, but the fund to support this was exhausted by 2002.
The continued growth of SGM's affairs meant that Harvest House became too small. In 1991, the Society purchased its present offices, Marlborough House, in a village location some 7 km south of Reading town centre.
A critical step in the development of SGM Quarterly was the change to in-house desktop publishing in 1993/94. The magazine was renamed Microbiology Today in 1999 and today publishes themed issues lavishly illustrated in colour. MT has won three industry awards for design.
In 1994, the Journal of General Microbiology was relaunched with a modernized format, and the title was changed to Microbiology. On-screen editing was introduced in the Editorial Office in the mid-1990s.
In 1995, the Society celebrated it’s Golden Jubilee. In addition to a jubilee edition of the SGM Quarterly, a specially commissioned ‘50th’ logo and a dinner held at the spring meeting that year in Bath, former President John Postgate wrote a history of the Society, entitled Society for General Microbiology - Fifty Years On, to mark the occasion.
In 1998, the Society took over from the American Society for Microbiology as publisher of the International Journal of Systematic Bacteriology, on behalf of the International Committee on Systematic Bacteriology (now the International Committee on Systematics of Prokaryotes) and the Bacteriology and Applied Microbiology Division of the International Union of Microbiological Societies. The journal was renamed as the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology (IJSEM) in 2000 to reflect its increased scope. It has also doubled in size during the time with SGM and its frequency was doubled, to monthly publication, in 2006.
In 2001, the Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland decided to transfer ownership of the Journal of Medical Microbiology (JMM) to SGM, to reflect the move of medical microbiologists to SGM's new Clinical Microbiology Group. SGM took over responsibility for servicing the Editorial Board and peer review process with effect from the January 2002 issue, and for managing production of the journal with effect from the January 2003 issue. The Society formally took over from Lippincott Williams & Wilkins as publisher from January 2004.
Over the years, Microbiology and JGV had gradually diverged in appearance and stylistic conventions, and IJSEM and JMM brought further diversity. During the latter part of 2002, a major redesign project of the SGM journals was carried out, to harmonize the appearances of all four journals, and to introduce a single set of stylistic conventions for the text. The journals appeared in the new SGM house style from the January 2003 issues onwards. This date also marked a change of printer and typesetter for Microbiology, JGV and IJSEM from Cambridge University Press (who had handled the work since 1993) to the Charlesworth Group of Wakefield. JMM was transferred to Charlesworth for the January 2006 issue onwards. The success of the new format of the four journals was recognized by an industry award for design and typographical excellence.
In 2001, a new Prize Lecture was introduced to recognise outstanding contributions to microbiology education, and named in honour of past-President Peter Wildy.
Since 2002, schools have been able to join SGM as corporate members. The Society has long supported the development of education in microbiology, and has had a specialist Education Group since 1964. Training courses have been developed for school teachers and technicians, and a number of resources for use in schools have been published.
Symposium volume no. 66, containing 16 contributions made at the Society's Warwick meeting in April 2006, became the last in the series to be published in book form, ending a tradition started in 1949.
The first SGM Prize Medal, awarded to a microbiologist of international standing whose work has had a far-reaching impact beyond microbiology, was presented for the first time in 2009 to Professor Stanley Prusiner who delivered his lecture on prions at the Spring Conference in Harrogate.