Michael Fuller (1936 – 2019)

Michael Fuller & Max Perutz
Michael Fuller and Max Perutz, 1997

Michael Fuller, Laboratory Services Manager, Laboratory Steward, Technician, Special Projects Co-ordinator and stalwart of the LMB for over 44 years died on 22 November 2019. Michael was devoted to the LMB and put all his energies into making it an efficient and productive institution and played a vital role in the building up of the Laboratory from its small beginnings into a major laboratory. Outside of his official roles, Michael enthusiastically got involved in anything that he could help with, both at the LMB and more widely the MRC.

Mike was a true LMB legend. He started at the LMB’s predecessor MRC Unit in 1952. During his long career at the LMB, spanning 45 years until 1997, and far beyond that until very recently, Mike enabled, oversaw and inspired the lab’s development from a small enterprise into a powerhouse in Molecular Biology. He held illustrious job titles such as Laboratory Steward and Laboratory Services Manager that did not fully reflect his wide-ranging activities, or that he always went beyond expectations” said Jan Löwe, Director of the LMB.

Michael was born on the 17th September 1936, in Cambridge. He was educated at the Central Grammar School (now Parkside Community College), which at the time had a technical bias. When he was fifteen he read about the nuclear physics work being done at the Cavendish Laboratory (University of Cambridge Department of Physics) and was enthused to write a letter to enquire about any possible jobs there. His letter reached Max Perutz, in the MRC Unit for Research on the Molecular Structure of Biological Systems, then based at the Cavendish Laboratory, and he was invited for an interview. He started work as an apprentice technician on 2nd January 1952.

In his first role, Michael’s job was to help Tony Broad with the final stages of constructing and installing the Unit’s rotating anode X-ray tubes. Tony had designed the tubes (based on one built at the Mond Nickel Company), and they provided the main X-ray source in the Laboratory. Once the first one was running, Michael became responsible for their maintenance. He also became involved in the construction of other instruments and was also available for various other general jobs in the Unit. In 1957, Michael was called up for National (military) service and he joined the army medical corps, becoming an acting sergeant in charge at night of a 400-bed military hospital on the south coast. Although initially interested in an offer to stay on in the army, news of the plans for a new building for the MRC Unit tempted him to ask for his old job back and in 1960 he returned to a technician’s post in the Lab.

Michael Fuller c.1970
Michael Fuller c.1970

Michael was immediately involved in the setting up of the new laboratory and the move into the new building, now named the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, began at the end of 1961. In particular, he helped design and equip the stores and was appointed Laboratory Steward, in charge of stores and purchasing, technical services and the maintenance of the building. In this role, his organisational ability was quickly apparent and he had a keenness to read the technical literature and find out about new developments, advising research workers on the most suitable materials and instruments for their experiments, and very often anticipating their requirements. He was also an active member of the MRC’s central purchasing committee and his wide range of contacts with commercial suppliers enabled him to provide valuable assistance in this area to other MRC Units. In 1988, he focussed solely on the technical services side, becoming Laboratory Services Manager. In this role, his expertise was called upon more widely by the MRC. He was largely responsible for the design and fitting out of the laboratories in the new Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Protein Engineering (CPE). He became an advisor in the planning for a large new building on the LMB site, to be shared by the University Clinical School and the MRC, and was involved in the sourcing of a suitable site for the Sanger Centre (now the Sanger Institute).

In 1997, Michael officially retired, at the age of 60. For his retirement party over 200 staff and former colleagues, including four Nobel Laureates, packed into the LMB canteen, and listened to speeches by both Max Perutz and Aaron Klug. After his retirement, Michael went straight back to the Lab, as a retired worker, with the title of Special Projects Coordinator. In this role he helped members of the Lab with a variety of projects, including planning and delivering several LMB Royal Society Summer Exhibitions. He was a member of the organising committee for the LMB’s 2003 events to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the solving of the DNA structure. This was especially apt, as Michael was already working in the Laboratory when Francis Crick and James Watson announced the structure of DNA and unveiled their model, in 1953. Michael later recalled that amongst the physicists there was more interest in a ‘slinky’, a coiled metal toy that ‘walked’ downstairs, rather than the DNA model. Michael also helped at numerous outreach events and gave talks and presentations about his work and the work of the LMB. His knowledge about the LMB was a valuable source of information to many, especially for the LMB Archivist, and many science historians and writers would welcome his input about the LMB for their work. In December 2012, shortly before the LMB moved to a new building on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, Michael quietly left his office and the LMB for the last time, 15 years after his official retirement.

Time and time again, Michael’s efforts and initiatives went far beyond the normal requirements of his job and no task was too much trouble. Max Perutz noted, that in 1978, for 70 consecutive nights during the fireman’s strike, Michael came to the Lab to make sure that everything which could possibly have started a fire was turned off. Michael also had the task of sourcing, at very short notice, the champagne for six LMB Nobel Prize parties, most recently in 2009, to celebrate Venki Ramakrishnan’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Michael Fuller 2009
Michael at the Nobel party for Venki Ramakrishnan 2009

Michael was a legend, especially abroad, his fame having been spread over the years by postdoctoral visitors to the Lab. This was much in evidence when he attended a dinner at Trinity College following the 2014 LMB Alumni Symposium. Sitting at the end of one of the dining tables, a succession of alumni came down to say hello to him, and to have their photo taken with him.

In 1977, in recognition of his long, devoted and efficient service to the MRC, he was awarded the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal, and in 1997 he was appointed a MBE, in recognition of his services to the Laboratory and to biomedical science in general in Cambridge. Michael was also honoured by the LMB in 2013, by having a room named after him in the current LMB building. Many colleagues and friends, along with Michael and his family, gathered for a celebration and official naming of the room.

Richard Henderson, former Director of the LMB said, “Michael was the ultimate “can-do” lab manager. Among his most memorable contributions are such questions as “I wonder whether this new instrument might be useful for your research”, “perhaps we should buy two (new spectrometers, PCR machines, etc for your work)” instead of the one being requested. He advised numerous postdocs on how to set up their own labs, giving them complete lists of all the equipment they would need to buy. His optimism, enthusiasm and positive outlook empowered many generations of students, postdocs, group leaders and directors.

Michael Fuller and colleagues 2013
Michael with colleagues and friends at the opening of the ‘Michael Fuller Room’, 2013