Lives of the fellows

Michael George Parke (Sir) Stoker

b.4 July 1918 d.13 August 2013
KT(1980) CBE(1974) BA Cantab(1939) MRCS LRCP(1942) MB BChir(1943) MD(1947) FRSE(1960) FRS(1968) FRCP(1979) Hon DSc Glasg(1982)

Sir Michael Stoker was an outstanding cell biologist who had a major influence on the development of biomedical research and specifically cancer research in the UK. In 1958, as the first professor of virology in Britain, he set up the Institute of Virology in Glasgow, focusing on tumour viruses, and on the development of systems of mammalian cell culture necessary for their study. The Glasgow Institute became a major centre, globally recognised, and Michael himself considered the years there the most productive of his life. Nevertheless, in 1968 he accepted an offer to take on the directorship of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF, later incorporated into Cancer Research UK) in London. Under his direction, ‘the Fund’ became a world renowned Institution, attracting staff and visitors of high calibre, including Renato Dulbecco, who won the Nobel prize while there.

Michael was born in Taunton, Somerset, after his father returned from the First World War, having won the military cross. Stanley Parke Stoker eventually settled the family in Market Harborough, where he worked as a GP, having previously qualified at Cork Medical School in Ireland. His name derived from his uncle and godfather – Thomas Heazle Parke – who was on Stanley’s last expedition in Africa. Michael’s mother, Dorothy (née Nazer) was from Kent, with family on both sides of the channel.

At the age of eight Michael was sent as a boarder to Oakham prep school – not his favourite years – but he adapted well to the upper school and from there went up to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, to read medicine. It was at school that he acquired a taste for sailing, which he kept throughout his life. The decision to go for medicine was a bit arbitrary, being selected from the suggestions his father made, which were the Army, the Church or medicine. Clearly he made the right choice.

Apart from the BA he obtained in 1939, the most important event at Cambridge was meeting his wife Veronica (née English) in his last year. They were married in September 1942 after moving to St Thomas’ for his clinical training. This was severely interrupted more than once because of the bombs and temporary evacuations. Veronica was with him in London, where she had a job as a ‘lady’ cook at St Thomas’ and they experienced the Blitz together. Indeed Michael wrote a letter on the first day of the Blitz (now in the Imperial War Museum), which described in detail their on the spot experience of the bombs, the planes and the fires while making their way from Brixton to the hospital. In spite of these hurdles, he did qualify and managed six months as a houseman at Lambeth hospital in the summer of 1942, before being called up for the RAMC in February 1943.

When he left in November 1943 Veronica was expecting a baby and he saw neither of them for the three years he was away, but the time in India was extremely important as he became interested in tropical diseases and saw the need for laboratory investigations to deal with them. After some jungle training and becoming medical officer to the 3rd/9th Ghurkas, he had the good luck to be offered a place on the laboratory medicine course at Poona, run by outstanding medical staff, including Douglas Black [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.62] (later president of the Royal College of Physicians). He was offered a place on the staff, published with Black, and began work on various forms of typhus with Ronald Seaton [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.445]. This provided the basis for his MD thesis. Michael himself felt that the year and a half spent in Poona was probably the most formative of his career, influencing him to become a laboratory scientist.

After demobilisation in 1947, until moving to Glasgow, Michael worked and taught as a lecturer in the pathology department at Cambridge. While focusing on virology in the laboratory, he was very aware of the emerging sciences of cell and molecular biology, and interacted with investigators at the Cavendish Laboratory, including Francis Crick and Max Perutz, and later Sydney Brenner. At the time he was recruited to Glasgow, he had been an honorary fellow of Clare College and director of medical studies there for several years.

In Glasgow, focusing his attention on the culture of mammalian cells, and working with Ian McPherson, Michael developed BHK-21, a hamster cell line which allowed the characterisation of the ‘normal’ and ‘transformed’ cell phenotype. At this point he began to see himself as a cell biologist, using the tumour viruses as tools to understand the changes in cell phenotype they could induce. It was also at this point that he developed his strategy for his directorship, which involved identifying fields of research important for solving biological problems, employing innovative and productive scientists with expertise in these fields, and giving them autonomy. This was extremely successful, and towards the end of his life, talking to his son, he expressed his feeling of pride at seeing the effectiveness of these small, autonomous research units. He knew that careful infrastructure could help the productivity of investigators. Typical of his insight into the recruitment of the right person for the job, he said that his most important appointment was that of Bill House as his chief technician, who became – in his words – ‘the leading support manager in Britain’.

The fact that Michael’s managerial style was so successful derived from the fact that he himself continued to work at the bench, so his vision was based on inside knowledge, together with an awareness of the advances that were happening in the world at large, and the efficient support of House. His success at the Institute of Virology did not go unnoticed and in 1968 he was recruited as director of ICRF, where he was given ample space and money to put the Institute on the international map. He brought with him colleagues from Glasgow, including Lionel Crawford to continue the virology/molecular biology side and Ian McPherson, a fellow cell biologist. He changed the structure of ICRF, by following the creed he developed in Glasgow – the development of small autonomous groups, with each group reviewed every five years by world renowned figures with the expertise to judge past programmes and future proposals. As a result, the Institute at Lincoln’s Inn Fields became one of the most renowned in the world, attracting investigators from far and wide.

Michael’s influence on biomedical research extended to his being a member of several committees for bodies such as the Medical Research Council and the Council for Scientific Policy, and he was vice president and foreign secretary for the Royal Society (from 1977 to 1981).

It was a privilege to work at ICRF, as the combination of House’s support system and not having to apply for grants, left scientists free to do research without distractions. I myself came when the Institute was in full swing, around 1974, to work with him on a new venture he had decided upon, namely to culture and characterise cells from a human cancer – breast cancer – and the normal epithelial cells from which they developed. Typically generous, I was to spend half my time collaborating with him on this, and the other half doing whatever I thought exciting and important. The breast cancer focus involved collaborating with the breast cancer unit at Guy’s, and this continued to be his focus until he retired. He then returned to Cambridge, to do what he loved best, being a hands-on cell biologist. It was in this last period that he discovered a novel factor ‘scatter factor’ (also identified as hepatocyte growth factor) which did what it said, inducing epithelial cells to separate and scatter. He continued to have input into scientific planning in the UK and later became president of Clare Hall.

Michael Stoker was an incredibly effective leader in the business of science. He was also a very charming and generous colleague for those of us who had the privilege of working with him.

Through all his success he was lucky to have the support of his wife of 62 years Veronica, who died in 2004. He was survived by their five children, Christopher, Jenny, Paul, Robin and Sally, seven grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Joyce Taylor-Papadimitriou

[The Guardian 27 August 2013;The Telegraph 3 October 2013]

(Volume XII, page web)

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