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Department of Genetics


It is with great sadness that we learnt of the death of Philip Oliver on Saturday 13 June 2020.  Philip retired from Genetics in 2012.  David Summers remembers Philip here:


Dr Philip Oliver: a personal reflection


I first crossed paths with Philip Oliver when I came to Cambridge as a Natural Sciences undergraduate in 1974. I think this was probably the same year that Philip took up his position in the Department of Genetics which, in those days, was still located out on Milton Road.


I remember Philip lecturing in Part I, although I don’t remember which course he taught, or anything about his subject matter. What I do remember is the way he chain-smoked through the lectures. When he needed to write on the blackboard, he would free-up his hands by resting his cigarette across the rim of his coffee cup. Oblivious to all else, the audience would watch the line of ash creeping towards the rim of the cup and wait for the moment when it would tumble into the mug and vanish beneath the murky brown surface. Would he even notice it had happened? Sadly, he always returned just in time to rescue it.


The Department of Genetics moved to the Downing Site over the summer of 1976 which was also when I joined as a Part II student. The dynamic young Dr Oliver led me into the world of microbiology from which I have never escaped. Nick Harberd and I carried out our Part II projects in Philip’s laboratory. I was studying the transduction of plasmids by Salmonella phage P22; I think the idea was to make deletions. Although no deletions ever materialised, the highlight of that Lent Term was unquestionably a late-night pipetting accident that left me on my own in the lab with a mouth full of Salmonella culture. Nick’s project was also phage related although he had less of an appetite for culture; I remember his work had something to do with plaque size. He spent most of his time projecting the images of plates onto the wall and measuring plaque diameters with a ruler. Why we were doing all this was a bit of a mystery. Philip was the sort of man who would just get interested in a question and would then spend his time poking it with a stick until something (or nothing) happened. His curiosity about the world really was both enigmatic and astonishingly infectious.


After graduating I escaped from Cambridge for almost a decade before eventually returning to the Genetics Department. Many of the old guard were still in residence and I was delighted to find Philip still among them. He never had much of a research group of his own, but he became a valuable scientific neighbour up on the first floor of our building and was a wonderfully knowledgeable and sceptical presence at our group meetings. Philip’s breed of academic scientist was endangered even in the 1970s and has now almost completely vanished. There is no place for his like in the world of the REF and impact factors, but I find my scientific world is very much the poorer for his passing.


David Summers

15th June 2020.