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John Miles

John Arthur Reginald Miles, the third professor of Bacteriology (Microbiology), was born on 13 May 1913, in Sidcup, Kent, England. The only child of older parents, his early interests were in the natural world and he shared the family passion for spaniels. He was educated at Monkton Combe School, Bath, before obtaining his medical education at Cambridge University,  graduating in 1938 (MA MB BChir). He then spent 5 years as the Huddersfield Lecturer in Special Pathology at St Thomas's Hospital. London. In 1942 he joined the British Army as a graded pathologist and was a captain in the Medical Corps. His army career consisted mainly of research where he developed an interest in virology.

In 1951 John moved to Adelaide, Australia, where he worked as a medical research fellow at the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science. He married Ruth Herbert French, who he had met earlier in Devon. Among other activities they began breeding English Springer spaniels.

MilesJohn Miles arrived in Dunedin in 1955 and he set the course for the newly renamed Microbiology Department for the next 21 years.  John had worked in Adelaide on the epidemiology of mosquito and tick borne viruses and the Murray Valley encephalitis virus. His friend Frank Fenner was involved in introducing myxomatosis virus to control rabbits in the Murray Darling area. Spectacular results were achieved when coincidentally to a dry spell rains fell that resulted in a sudden and synchronised outburst of the mosquito population. This aided the spread of myxomatosis virus among rabbits. But when people started to become ill from a new virus disease, there was concern that myxomatosis had crossed the species barrier to humans. The isolation of Murray Valley encephalitis virus by John Miles was crucial in allying public fears that this had happened.

Here in his own words is the account of the early years and the development of the Microbiology Department (excerpts from archival material held in the Hocken Collections, University of Otago):

Until 1955 the University of Otago Medical School had a combined department of "Bacteriology and Public Health". The first chairman had been Professor Champtaloup who died from tuberculosis at an early age. He was succeeded by Professor C.E.Hercus (later Sir Charles Hercus), who became Dean in 1937 while continuing to be chairman of the Department. The increasing load of the deanship meant that, in due course, the time he could spend in his department diminished and Dr Maurice Watt was almost completely responsible for the administration of the bacteriology section, while Sir Charles kept a closer association with public health, although Dr Archie Douglas carried much of the administration as well as a large teaching burden.

By the early 1950s it was decided that the bacteriology section should be split off and made an independent department and in 1954 I was appointed Professor of Microbiology and took up the appointment at the beginning of the 1955 academic year. At that time the staff of the department was Dr Watt, Dr. Mary (Molly) Marples who was in charge of the science course as well as taking part in the medical teaching, Dr Neil Markham who was responsible for the diagnostic laboratory, Dr Solly Faine who was away working for a D.Phil. in Oxford and Dr. Don Bacon who was working with Dr. Marples and left to work for a PhD at Yale and was converted from mycology to bacterial genetics.

In 1955 I came to a small department responsible for teaching and research in medical, dental and all aspects of general microbiology. It was clear that it would never be possible to appoint specialists in all fields. On the other hand it seemed to me undesirable to concentrate on building a strong staff in one research field and expecting them to cover all fields in teaching, as has been done in some small departments. The best compromise appeared to me to be to attempt to appoint people with sufficiently widespread expertise to be able to cover all aspects reasonably well, but to try to have at least two people whose interests were sufficiently close to one another for them not to feel isolated. This may have had something to do with making Professor Markham feel that his affiliations were closer with Pathology than Microbiology. Even apart from this case the success of this plan was very uneven. The mycology and virology groups worked pretty well. Later the group on microbiological control of pests and vectors and, when I had finally succeeded in making appointments, the immunologists proved very effective collaborations. Bacterial genetics was a miserable failure because of personal incompatibility and very strongly developed interests before they came to Dunedin.

Miles-eggJohn Miles held important positions with the MRC, the Royal Society of NZ and with overseas organisations such as WHO. He had been in the Royal Army Medical Corps during WWII and years at St Thomas’s Hospital in London. He was frequently away on trips to the Pacific Islands, to Geneva or wherever and he was sometimes affectionately referred to as ‘Professor Miles Away’. Again In his own words:

Because of my interest in zoonoses I was appointed a member of the WHO-FAO expert committee on diseases of animals transmissible to man in 1958 and I remained on the expert panel until I reached the age of 70 in 1983. I was also later involved with the WHO work on dengue both as a committee member and consultant. This probably helped me to get funds in 1963 from the Wellcome Trust to set up the Wellcome Virus Laboratory in Suva, Fiji. This was originally intended to study the epidemiology of virus diseases in the Islands and we did a considerable amount on respiratory viruses. As mentioned above, Franc MacNamara organised and carried through a very successful filariasis control campaign while he was whole time in the laboratory and also arranged the long term follow up during his later long vacation visits. We also worked from the Wellcome lab on the dengue epidemics which pass through the islands frequently, although the virus does not succeed in establishing endemicity in such small populations. The epidemic of polyarthritis and rash due to Ross River virus, which passed through Melanesia and Polynesia in 1979, provided a very interesting study.

Because of my known interest in the islands I represented the RSNZ on the Pacific Science Council for 13 years and was elected an Honorary Life Fellow in 1975. In 1979 I was appointed President of the Pacific Science Association for four years. We held the 15th Pacific Science Congress in Dunedin in 1983 and, between members and associates brought just over 1700 people to the University for a two-week Congress. At the 17th Congress held in Hawaii last year the organisation of the Dunedin Congress was held up as a model. This is largely due to the excellent work of the Secretary-General, Professor Charles Higham.

During this time the Medical Research Council established the Virus Research Unit in the Medial School. This demonstrated the importance of virus diseases in the community and particularly at that time the major concern was for polio. Dr Lyle Fastier was its first director with the overall supervision by Professor Edson of the Biochemistry Department. When John Miles arrived Professor Edson turned over the responsibility to him. Yet again in the words of John Miles:

Polio Paper

Miles-microscopeTwo research units were closely associated with the department; the MRC Virus Research Unit and the Hydatid Research Unit. Both of these had been set up through the efforts of Sir Charles Hercus and the first directors were people with irrelevant qualifications and interests. Dr Richardson, the first director of the virus unit was an immunologist who had been regarded as a very promising young man in London just before the war. After the war he came home to NZ and apparently had difficulty in finding suitable employment, so accepted Sir Charles' invitation. He was not happy and soon left and was replaced by Dr Lyle Fastier who was a competent virologist. When I arrived he felt his independence threatened and took a post with Mr Fitch in his veterinary vaccine outfit, later known as Tasman Vaccine Laboratories. Mr Fitch thought very highly of him and allowed him plenty of latitude and I believe he stayed there until he retired.

After Fastier resigned the MRC appointed me director of the VRU, which suited my interests very well. At the time poliomyelitis was the most important topic. I had been doing some work on it in Australia and continued with epidemiological studies in collaboration with Jock Caughey in Dunedin. The Health Dept. set up a Polio advisory committee of which I was a member and we succeeded in getting a Sabin vaccine programme going early. The oral vaccine proved very acceptable at a time when the
public was very worried about the disease and there had been a substantial epidemic despite the use of Salk vaccine. We got a 97% acceptance in schools and 80% of preschoolers. Since then there have only been a very few sporadic cases. So far the immunisation has been kept up quite well. The polio committee was changed to the Infectious Disease Epidemiology Committee and I remained a member until I went to Fiji in 1979.

Microbiology Building

Under John Miles' guidance the department expanded and moved from being primarily a medical discipline to teaching science subjects. Additional courses and staff were appointed to establish courses in microbial genetics, soil microbiology, molecular biology, biological control and immunology. Interest in Pacific Island medical microbiology grew and staff members carried out investigations into filariasis, bacterial and mycotic skin infections, dengue, viral hepatitis and respiratory virus infections. In 1963 a virus laboratory was built at the Colonial War Memorial Hospital in Suva, Fiji which for the first 10 years was directed and staffed by members of the Microbiology Department. By 1970 the department had outgrown its accommodation in the Medical School and when in 1972 a decision was made to increase the intake of medical students, this was used as leverage to the commissioning and building of an eight-storyed Microbiology Building on the science campus of the University. (The justification was an amazingly brief 7-page A4 document) . The building was completed in 1975 and the staff moved into their new premises to began the academic teaching year.

John Miles was an active researcher and as well as being the Director of the Medical Research Council's Virus Research Unit for 19 years, he had interests in arboviruses, respiratory virus infections, viral hepatitis and biological control of insect pests. In pursuing these interests, he set up and participated in a number of field programmes in New Zealand,  Southwest Pacific and Antarctica. Despite his administrative duties, he published some 138 scientific papers and a book entitled: Infectious Diseases - Colonising the Pacific (1997). He received a CBE in 1971 and numerous awards honouring his scientific work, his favourite was the K.F. Meyer award of the American Society of Veterinary Epidemiologists which included a gold-headed cane, which he said was actually made of brass.

Departmental retirement - 1978

He ended his chairmanship of the department with this characteristic brief comment: "In 1976, when John Loutit had finished his stint as Dean of Science, I asked to be relieved of chairmanship of the department and he took over, so I had a relatively peaceful last three years."

Retirement function, Nov - 1978
Portrait presentation - 1978

John had other interests and for several years he coached the Otago University Rowing Club, he had developed a passion for the sport at Cambridge, where he was the bowman for the Caius College First Lent Boat team in 1932-33. He and his wife, Ruth purchased a holiday home at Lake Hawea (Central Otago) in the 1970s and enjoyed long summer holidays there with their two daughters, Eleanor and Deborah. Ruth died in 1980 at the age of 63 and later in 1985 John married Vi Miller, a family friend that lived in Scotland for many years. She returned to New Zealand and they shared their retirement in Hawea until Vi died in 2003. John had what has been described as the possessor of a raised eyebrow that would silently ask "Do you really think so?" when confronted with a disagreement.

Professor John Miles died following a brief illness, aged 90, on 20 January 2004; he is survived by his daughters.

Below is a video of John Miles, aged 82, expounding on the origins of the NZ Microbiological Society at their annual conference in 1995.