Catalogue description Catalogue of historical material relating to the Oxford Enzyme Group

This record is held by Oxford University: Bodleian Library, Special Collections

Details of NCUACS18.3.90
Reference: NCUACS18.3.90
Title: Catalogue of historical material relating to the Oxford Enzyme Group









D.1-D.44 Research Councils


D.45-D.48 Oxford University


D.49 E.P. Abraham Research Fund


D.50 National Research Development Corporation


D.51-D.55 Visitations and inspections




E.1-E.12 Minutes and circulars


E.13, E.14 Membership


E.15-E.23 Staff and appointments


E.24-E.35 Projects, ideas and policy










Introduction to Section J


The documentation for these preliminary stages, extending roughly up to the award of the first grants, is preserved as 'Early History' in Section A, and is augmented by recollections of the OEG and its work contributed for the present collection by founder or longterm members.


The character of the bulk of the remaining material arises from its provenance, essentially from the chairmen of OEG: Richards 1969-83 and Phillips his successor from October 1983. The research programmes of the group as such, and the contributions of its individual members, are documented in the sequence of research applications and the reports thereon, and in the proposals, ideas and policy papers put forward at the fortnightly research and business meetings and/or submitted to colleagues for consideration. The part played here by Williams emerges as a significant one, many of the proposals, from the earliest date onwards, being in his characteristically lively and often controversial style. The continuing work on NMR and the early running of the preparation laboratory are more fully recorded, representing as they do the special responsibilities of Richards and Phillips respectively. The documentation is less full for the work of other OEG members, several of whom drew on separate sources for their funding (mainly the Science, Medical and Agricultural Research Councils) and pursued other lines of work alongside the OEG collaboration. The latter, collaborative, aspect is very well recorded, the material encompassing the interdisciplinary drafting of grant applications, the group evaluations of projects and decisions on staffing, and the Chairmen's tasks of careful budgeting, financial administration and pleading arising from unexpected upward surges in costs - including those for the multi-funded Rex Richards Building raised to house the laboratories of molecular biophysics and immunochemistry. The meetings of the Group are well documented from the beginning in 1969 throughout the 1970s though somewhat less fully for the 1980s. The membership of the Group adapted to changes in the research interests or career structure of its members, though some remained throughout its existence. The collaborative element of what R.R. Porter described as 'a consortium' was never lost and at one time or another the following departments, laboratories or institutions all included OEG members:






Chemical Crystallography


Clinical Biochemistry, Radcliffe Infirmary


Clinical Biochemistry, John Radcliffe Hospital


Dyson Perrins Laboratory


Inorganic Chemistry


Molecular Biophysics


Physical Chemistry


Sir William Dunn School of Pathology




The new building, opened in 1985 at a time of great financial constraint, is a lasting and visible mark of the success of the OEG; but it coincided with several major changes which bore on its future. In October 1983 Richards accepted the Directorship of the Leverhulme Trust to take effect on his retirement as Warden of Merton College at the end of that academic year, and accordingly resigned as Chairman; his successor, Phillips, while remaining active in the laboratory and in the affairs of OEG, took on heavy outside responsibilities as Chairman of the Advisory Board for the Research Councils (ABRC), and R.R. Porter, who was to head the MRC Immunochemistry Unit in the new building, was untimely killed in a road accident in September 1985.


The last chapter in the history of OEG, more suitably viewed perhaps as the opening of a new volume, began in 1987 with the publication of the ABRC report A Strategy for the Science Base which recommended the creation of a small number of strongly-supported Interdisciplinary Research Centres to concentrate research efforts on specific topics in a limited number of universities. This concept over-rode departmental and even university boundaries and met with considerable academic opposition; it was, however, officially welcomed and machinery was rapidly set in motion via the research councils. During the later months of 1987 bids were invited for a centre in molecular science; the first draft of the Oxford bid was written by Phillips, drawing on the work of OEG and material provided by its members. This document was the basis of discussions and modifications by, among others, J.E. Baldwin and C.M. Dobson and the approval of the university authorities. After an SERC site visit in November and further modifications, the final bid was sent in before Christmas. In February 1988 the bid was accepted and the Oxford IRC began officially in October 1988 as the Oxford Centre for Molecular Studies with J.E. Baldwin as Director and an initial budget of £8 million. The Farewell Dinner of OEG had been held in March, though many of its members continue their collaborative work within the new organisation. Like the early history in Section A, this concluding episode is quite well documented in Section J from material provided by Phillips and C.M. Dobson.


Compiled by Jeannine Alton


The work of the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists, and the production of this Catalogue, are made possible by the support of the following societies and organisations:


The Biochemical Society


The British Library


The Geological Society


The Institute of Physics


National Power


Pilkington plc


Rolls-Royce plc


The Royal Society


The Royal Society of Chemistry


The Society of Chemical Industry


I am very grateful to all those who have contributed material and been so generous with their time in answering questions, identifying documents and providing information. In particular, Sir Rex Richards and Sir David Phillips have put their unique knowledge of OEG freely at my disposal, and found time to read and comment on the catalogue.


My thanks also go to Peter Harper, Archivist NCUACS, for his careful attention to the draft catalogue.

Date: 1967-1990
Held by: Oxford University: Bodleian Library, Special Collections, not available at The National Archives
Language: English

Oxford Enzyme Group, 1969-1989

Physical description: 21 boxes
Immediate source of acquisition:

The collection has been brought together from several sources and over a considerable period of time from November 1987 to September 1990. The greater part was received from Sir Rex Richards, the founder Chairman of the Oxford Enzyme Group (OEG), and this was supplemented by the relevant papers of Sir David Phillips who acted as Richards's Deputy Chairman during the latter's service as Vice-Chancellor 1977-81 and succeeded him as Chairman in 1983. Additional material relating especially to the later years was given by Dr. C.M. Dobson, the group's last secretary.


As well as these principal sources, other members of OEG or those connected with its history have contributed smaller amounts of material, or written their own recollections: Professor R.A. Dwek, Professor Sir Ewart Jones, Professor L.N. Johnson, Professor J.R. Knowles and Professor R.J.P. Williams.


Sir Rex Richards's own papers are deposited in the Bodleian Library (NCUACS no. 12/5/89).

  • Biochemistry
Administrative / biographical background:

The Oxford Enzyme Group was formally created, and began its regular meetings, in October 1969; its first research grants were awarded in August and November 1970. For an appreciable time before that, however, its leading members had been working both to encourage and to respond to official initiatives aimed at fostering enzyme research and to establish a climate in which collaborative research could flourish at Oxford. A major advance had been made not in Oxford but in London by D.C. Phillips and his team at the Royal Institution who had successfully analysed the three-dimensional structure of Iysozyme in 1965; G. Lowe and J.R. Knowles from the Dyson Perrins Laboratory, Oxford, had been among the first to approach him for information about the model. In the following year (1966) Phillips and members of his team arrived in Oxford to start the new Laboratory of Molecular Biophysics, thus continuing the impetus to enzyme research, and a personal benefaction to him from the Dupont Company enabled him to sponsor a series of fortnightly dinners which brought together colleagues in several disciplines as a nucleus of a collaborative group. On a technical level, the large-scale and expensive facilities required for interdisciplinary research, such as NMR, X-ray crystallography and high-speed computation, were also beginning to come together at Oxford.


An important official step was taken in February 1968 when the Science Research Council (SRC) set up an Enzyme Panel as a Joint Panel of its Biological Sciences, Chemistry, and Chemical Engineering and Technology Committees; the Panel's terms of reference were: 'To examine various aspects of the enzyme field in order to discern areas where new or more research could profitably be undertaken. To consider how best to foster any desirable activities and to make recommendations for appropriate SRC support.' The Chairman of the Panel was Sir Ewart Jones, Phillips was a member, and the Technical Secretary was Knowles.


The Panel first met in February 1968 and reported in February 1969. It recommended that 'special efforts should be made, even involving methods of support novel to the Science Research Council, to foster research in this highly interdisciplinary, exciting and economically important field'. It stressed the importance of collaborative work, recognised the requirements for high resolution NMR equipment and for facilities for the preparation of adequate supplies of pure enzymes, envisaged the need for long-term support (up to five years) and in some cases for building provision, and suggested the establishment of an Enzyme Chemistry and Technology Board with grant-giving powers, to be responsible for the support of research along these lines. The recommendations were accepted and a new Enzyme Chemistry and Technology Committee was set up in March 1969, with Jones as Chairman and G.W. Kenner, H.L. Kornberg and Phillips as members.


Already, plans for collaborative research, and bids for accommodation, had been prepared and circulated in Oxford at various dates in 1968 and 1969, the main participants in this endeavour being Phillips, Knowles, R.E. Richards and R.J.P. Williams. One of these proposals, which envisaged a three-year programme, was considered at the first meeting of the Enzyme Chemistry and Technology Committee in April 1969, at the request of its Chairman Sir Ewart Jones. By the time the five-year grants were announced, in August 1970 for a preparation laboratory, equipment and staff, and in November 1970 for an ultra high field NMR spectrometer, negotiations were well in train for accommodation for the preparation laboratory as part of the Laboratory of Molecular Biophysics located in the Department of Zoology, and with Bruker Spectrospin and the Oxford Instrument Company for the design and supply of the NMR equipment.

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