Looking back: EMBL in the 1970s and 1980s

A special Coffee with EMBL session celebrated EMBL’s 50th anniversary by inviting alumni to reflect on the organisation’s first two decades

A coffee mug on a table, with photographs nearby. The photos show pictures from the 1970s and 1980s, with a football team and a scientific research team represented.
Some glimpses of EMBL in the 1970s and 1980s. Credits: Rafaele Matteoni, Michael Hortsch, Creative Team/EMBL

By Tom Furnival-Adams, Alumni Relations Officer

EMBL’s 50th anniversary is a milestone that represents an unmissable opportunity to celebrate and capture the organisation’s remarkable history. One of the anniversary activities this year is a special Coffee with EMBL series titled ‘Five Decades of EMBL’, which encourages current and former staff to come together and share recollections from their time at EMBL.

During the first session in April 2024, alumni from the 1970s and 1980s reflected on EMBL’s first two decades. Former pre- and postdocs, group leaders, and site heads shared anecdotes and thought-provoking perspectives, painting a vivid picture of the institution’s electric atmosphere during its first decades. We were grateful to be joined by the first Head of EMBL Grenoble, Andrew Miller, and the second Head of EMBL Hamburg, Heinrich Stuhrmann, as well as former Director General Iain Mattaj. 

The session took inspiration from EMBL’s ‘20 Years On’ publication, produced in 1994 by EMBL’s first Communications Officer and organisational chronicler David States to mark the organisation’s 20th anniversary. In the introduction to the publication, Nobel Laureate François Jacob wrote: 

“EMBO and EMBL, like CERN, provide very good examples of what Europe can achieve when European countries agree to pool their resources and work toward a common goal.” Today, this statement about science transcending boundaries feels as relevant as ever. 

A prevailing theme at the Coffee with EMBL session was the vibrant, close-knit environment that characterised EMBL at the time. Predocs reminisced about feeling part of an intimate community where collaboration flourished and everyone knew everyone.

Graham Tebb, a predoc in the Genome Biology Unit and Staff Association Chair from 1985—1988, described EMBL as “very small and intimate”, conducive to open interactions across groups and units. This openness, he explained, helped to foster an integrated community where scientific ideas flowed freely and social connections thrived: “There was a constant intermingling of groups and a huge number of interactions and synergies. This was the most intense and certainly the most rewarding time of my scientific life.”

Alumni also spoke of the rich social atmosphere that permeated EMBL’s early years. Karin Römisch, a predoc from 1987—1991 in the Cell Biology and Biophysics Unit, recalled cultural festivities like Burns Night, which enriched her understanding of different cultures and fostered a sense of inclusivity. She said: “This was the first time I had a peer group, and people as mad as I was. I felt I had arrived. There was a collaborative atmosphere at EMBL: you could ask for any help, and there were no limits. We were at the forefront of what could be done. It was completely mind-blowing!”

However, the era was not without its challenges. Daniela Marazziti, a postdoc in the Cell Biology and Biophysics Unit from 1984—1988, reflected on a more ‘closed’ Europe and the struggles this created for her initially: “There were still borders between European countries. And travelling was not so easy. So my English was very, very basic. But I survived, thanks to the people around me, because everybody at EMBL was very helpful.”

Brigitte Jockusch, Group Leader in the Cell Biology and Biophysics Unit from 1978—1981, shared her experiences navigating a male-dominated landscape as a woman. “I was one of three female group leaders hired at the time. All of us were German, but I was the only one with children, and I wouldn’t have dared mention it. Those were the times, having kids was your private life, and it meant missing all the social activities,” she said. The lack of childcare facilities underscored some of the barriers faced by female scientists, especially, at the time.

On this topic, Graham Tebb spoke of his role as Staff Association Chair in helping to set up the EMBL Heidelberg Kinderhaus in the late 1980s, with the help of colleagues including former EMBO Executive Secretary John Tooze, former Staff Scientist Patricia Kahn, and former Differentiation Programme Coordinator Thomas Graf. This went some way to addressing the issues experienced by Jockusch and other female staff members. 

From today’s perspective, it is notable how many activities and characteristics have endured, from national celebrations such as Burns Night, to an inclusive and international culture. Some of the challenges, such as integrating into a new country with an unfamiliar language, have also remained, despite the impact of globalisation and the help of online translation tools.

EMBL’s expansion as an organisation has undoubtedly altered EMBL’s position as a small, tight-knit workplace. Additionally, contemporary challenges such as maintaining connection amidst remote working have also altered the course of EMBL’s evolution. 

Former Director General Iain Mattaj, who arrived at EMBL in 1985, reflected a wider consensus as the session drew to a close: “It’s absolutely sensible that the organisation has evolved. I think striving to maintain the flexibility and the informality of interactions is really worth fighting for, but it’s much more difficult when you have 2,000 people than when you have 400.”

It is an unfortunate reality that some of the alumni we would have been keen to learn from are no longer with us, while others are increasingly advanced in age. The event concluded with a call to action, urging everyone to visit the EMBL Alumni YouTube channel and watch ‘EMBL Chats’ with a range of former staff including Mary Holmes, David States, and Graham Tebb. In June, the focus of Coffee with EMBL turns to the 1990s. Please click here to register and join us online on Friday 14 June as we gain insights from another generation of alumni.

Share your memories

The Alumni Relations Office is working closely with EMBL Communications and the Archive to capture even more stories, memories, artefacts and anecdotes throughout the 50th anniversary celebration year. Please get in touch if you would like to contribute your memories or materials.

Tags: alumni, embl50, event, history, virtual event


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