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John Tooze


John Tooze has called the EMBO secretariat under his leadership (from 1973 – 1994) a ‘string and sealing wax operation.’   And to any of his successors it must be a mystery how he ran EMBO, including founding and editing The EMBO Journal and supporting Lennart Phillipson at EMBL, with only the support of his two invaluable secretaries Mare Kriis and Jenny Schulze-Eyssing. The answer is that he has always had an unerring sense of what can be achieved within the resources available.


That is not to say he has not been ambitious, playing a key role within EMBO in persuading the mighty NIH to change its guidelines on recombinant DNA, for example. And powerful research leaders have found him invaluable at turning their visions into practical reality. His training was a textbook preparation for the founding years of molecular biology. ‘I did my first degree in Cambridge,’ he says, ‘a PhD at Kings [College London] in the biophysics department where Maurice Wilkins and John Randall worked, and then I spent two years in Jim Watson's lab at Harvard working on phage genetics.’


Returning to a lectureship at Kings, he started writing a cell biology column for Nature every week, and got to know the editor, John Maddox. For two years he worked full-time as assistant and then deputy editor of Nature, until Maddox fell out with the publisher, Macmillan, and decided to resign. ‘I thought what do I do? And [the virologist] Mike Stoker had just moved to be Director General of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) labs. He offered me a job of being essentially a recruiting agent for him, and also running a small lab.’ It was Michael Stoker who suggested he apply to be Ray Appleyard’s successor at EMBO, where he stayed almost 20 years.


By the early 1990s, Paul Nurse had just become scientific director at the ICRF. ‘I felt that if I didn't move then I was going to stay until retirement,’ Tooze says. ‘Neither my wife nor I wanted to stay in Heidelberg that long. And Paul said ‘Why don't you come down [to ICRF]?’… I became director of core support services.’ Tooze was on hand as Nurse, by then Director General, embarked on an ambitious merger of the UK’s two largest cancer charities, ICRF and the Cancer Research Campaign. When in 2003 the Nobel laureate Nurse became President of Rockefeller University in New York, he lured Tooze across the Atlantic.


On Tooze’s watch as Vice-President for scientific and facility operations, Rockefeller has undertaken a massive capital building project, transforming two early 20th century buildings to create new lab space. The saving on material over building anew appeals to Tooze’s sense of the need to conserve world resources. The economists’ argument that we can spend our way out of recession appals him. ‘Are we arguing that that's a sustainable future?’ he asks incredulously. ‘I don't believe it.’


Georgina Ferry Source: EMBO in perspective: A half century in the life sciences.


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