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The early years

6 September 2016

Professor Mike Berridge reflects on his early years at the Wellington Cancer and Medical Research Institute (now the Malaghan Institute) 40 years ago.

was nearing the end of a contract at the National Institute of Medical Research in London in 1975, when I was alerted to an advertisement in the scientific journal Nature. The Wellington Medical Research Foundation was seeking a Malaghan Research Fellow. 

I didn’t get around to applying. A week or two after the closing date, I received a phone call asking me whether I intended to apply. Obviously this repatriation opportunity wasn’t hotly contested and was up for grabs if I wanted it. I submitted a rather brief application on red blood cell development and was offered the position for three years. 

Setting up a research project in the hospital’s rickety rooftop laboratory was no mean feat. The research culture and the temperature in winter were both close to zero! The hall between laboratories became a river when it rained, and guinea pigs and mice for clinical tests were housed just a couple of rooms along from my lab. I was eventually offered additional

laboratory space in the chemistry department at Victoria University. There I joined a supportive research peer group of biochemists, whose support continues to this day. 

Professor Bill Stehbens, the first director of the now Malaghan Institute, invited me into his office in 1978. He told me bluntly that I was to become part of the new institute, alongside his own atherosclerosis research programme. Soon after that, I left for a sabbatical at Purdue University and learned how to make monoclonal antibodies. This revolutionised the cell marker studies that underpin flow cytometry, which remains one of our cutting-edge technologies. 

The first flow cytometer was purchased in 1980 when Ann Malaghan donated $100,000 and the balance was gathered up from Hospital Board sources. This was only the second flow cytometer in New Zealand and we used ‘borrowed’ software from Christchurch for its operation. 

It is interesting to recall Stebhens’ strongly held view that hardening of the arteries resulted from physical fatigue and not from cholesterol or saturated fatty acids. He took on the world in the 1970s, including the powerful American nutrition lobby. In the last decade his unpopular views have been largely vindicated.