SGM SGM logo

About SGMHistory

A Short History of the SGM

The Early Days

The Society for General Microbiology was formally inaugurated on 16 February 1945, at a meeting of Original Members in London. Sir Alexander Fleming was elected as the first President. SGM had its origins in the (then) Society of Agricultural Bacteriologists: 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. The idea was to bring members from different backgrounds together to gain the benefits of interdisciplinary discussion and learning from each other. This aim of the founders is still, after more than half a century, central to the ethos of SGM. It underlies the growth of the Society, from 241 Original Members, to its present position as the largest microbiological learned society in Europe, with a total membership of over 5000.

Scientific Meetings and Groups

The first scientific meeting of the Society took place in Cambridge in July 1945, and in 1946 the first of the continuing series of spring Symposia was held. Meetings were also held in autumn and, from 1963, winter. This programme of three main meetings per year continued until 2001, when the winter meeting was dropped. The spring and autumn meetings increased in size, with many parallel sessions.There has been further development of more specialized events such as regional meetings and advanced training workshops, and joint meetings with other societies.

From 1960, the Society began to recognize the formation of a number of discipline-based special interest Groups, which have played a crucial part in the inception and detailed planning of meetings. An Irish Branch was formed in the 1970s in response to demand for an active programme of meetings in Ireland, and thrives to this day. The Scottish Branch was discontinued as a result of improved travel links, and the Society's policy of increasingly locating its main meetings at universities around the UK. Recently, however, stronger links have been established with the Scottish Microbiology Society.

The Society's Journals

The Journal of General 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. Submissions increased from around 30 papers in the first year of publication, to over 800 annually in the 1990s. In 1994 the journal was relaunched with a modernized format, and the title was changed to Microbiology.

In 1966, in recognition of the growing number of submissions on virology to JGM, the Journal of General Virology was founded, with C. Kaplan and P. Wildy as the first editors. JGV also attracted widespread support, and has grown to be the same size as its erstwhile parent.

In the first decades of their history, the journals were published on the Society's behalf by Cambridge University Press, but in 1981 SGM became the publisher in its own right. Distribution was also contracted out for a period, but is now handled from the Society's Headquarters.

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. Since then, the staff editor teams have continued to grow, to match the increase in numbers of papers published and because of the introduction of on-screen editing in the mid 1990s. All papers are now sent to the printers electronically, with a consequent reduction in publication time.

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 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 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 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.

A major development starting in 1999 was the mounting of online versions of the journals at Stanford University Libraries' HighWire Press site. However, the printed versions will continue to be produced for as long as there is sufficient demand for them.

Other Publications

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, and in 1982 the publication of proceedings ended, leaving the Quarterly to evolve into a lively and informative publication. A critical step 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 1949, the publication of the Society's Symposium series commenced; books which have maintained an international reputation for scholarship and being up-to-date. The latest to appear, and last in the series, is volume 66, Prokaryotic Diversity: Mechanisms and Significance, edited by N.A. Logan, H.M. Lappin-Scott and P.C.F. Oyston.

Corporate Matters

The original society of members 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.

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. However, 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. But the continued growth of SGM's own affairs meant that Harvest House eventually 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.

The Society had become 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'. In 1972, in recognition of the acquisition of property and rôle 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 dropped from the company name in 1995. In 1997 the first charity was removed from the Register of Charities and all the Society's activities were brought together in one body.

Other Activities

Although scientific meetings and publishing have formed the Society's core activities from its inception, there has been an ever increasing number of other activities which have played an important part in the development of microbiological science. The President's Fund, set up in 1972, was the first of a number of Society grant schemes which provide support for diverse good causes, and now distribute more than £200 000 per year. The Marjory Stephenson Memorial (now Prize) Lecture, established in 1953 in memory of the Society's second President, was the first of a series of prize lectures awarded to distinguished microbiologists, and delivered at Society meetings.

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. In 1988 and 2002 additional staff were appointed at Marlborough House to deal with professional affairs and public relations, and to support Council's Professional Affairs Officer.

The Society has long supported the development of education in microbiology, and has had a specialist Education Group since 1964. A booklet, Careers in Microbiology, was first published in 1974, and after four editions has been replaced by Your Career in Microbiology. This forms part of an ongoing service of careers advice and information, to schools and individuals. In 1998, the Society implemented a policy decision to increase its support for education, by appointing an Education Officer on Council, and a qualified teacher as a member of staff. Training courses have been developed for school teachers and technicians, and a number of resources for use in schools have been published. Since 2002, schools have been able to join SGM as corporate members. SGM has been an active supporter of the Microbiology in Schools Advisory Committee since 1980.

External Relations

From an early stage, the Society fostered collaboration with other European microbiological societies, and supported international congresses. It was active in the formation of the Federation of European Microbiological Societies in 1974, and has been a long-standing contributor to the activities of the International Union of Microbiological Sciences. The Society supported the formation of the UK Forum (later National Committee) for Microbiology in 1990, and joined the UK Life Sciences Committee in 2000. Both bodies were subsumed into the UK Biosciences Federation, formed in early 2003 with SGM as a founder member.

More History?

A much fuller account of the history of SGM is given in Society for General Microbiology - Fifty Years On, written by John Postgate to mark the Society's golden jubilee in 1995, and from which much of the material in this page was derived. Not least, Fifty Years On relates the immense contribution made by individual members, Officers and staff - too numerous to mention by name in this short history - to the development of the Society and its present stature.