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The parting of the ways…

At the end of March 1958, two years after Kluyver’s death, the Laboratory for Microbiology moved out of the building where he and Beijerinck had worked. Kluyver had been heavily involved in the design and planning of the new building, but it was his successor, Torsten Wikén, who took possession.

The new laboratory was attached to the new Department of Biochemistry, the Department of Applied Botany previously erected for Van Iterson and the associated  Botanic Garden dedicated to applied botany.

Professor Wikén’s new office was given new furniture, and the contents of the office used by Beijerinck and Kluyver were stored in a purpose-built room in the microbiology attic. Since the 1980s, this collection has gradually been organised and merged with similar material left by Van Iterson when he retired and a few related donations, giving us what is known today as the Delft School of Microbiology Archives and the Museum known as the “Kamer van Beijerinck” (Beijerinck’s office). None of it would have been possible without the hard work of a legion of volunteers who have sorted and researched different areas of the collection.

Kamer van Beijerinck

The collection has attracted visitors ranging from individual researchers from as far afield as the USA and Japan to biotechnology students in their first year with their parents and visitors from schools. It’s provided material for TV programmes, exhibitions, publications and postage stamps as well as a couple of PhD theses… Visitors to the Department of Biotechnology have frequently been brought to see the collection during their visits, as have participants in some of the Delft Advanced Courses.

All good things eventually come to an end, and it is finally time for the Archive-Museum and the Department of Biotechnology to part company. Biotechnology is moving to a brand new Faculty building on the outskirts of Delft, uniting with other Faculty Departments. The Archive-Museum  is moving around the corner to the old Department of Mining building, now the Delft Science Centre where the collection will occupy second floor rooms over the main entrance, next door to the minerals collection of the Department of Mining.

Regular readers of this blog will know that digitisation and cataloguing of the collection has been an on-going process and we’ve frequently been surprised as volunteers have found manuscripts and odd equipment as they’ve catalogued the contents of boxes. As we prepare for the move this is still true, and readers will no doubt be hearing about some of our more unusual discoveries (e.g. the papers relating to the unmasking of a cold war spy in the Department) in later posts.

Saying farewell to the Julianalaan will be sad in some ways (most of my scientific career was spent there), but our new rooms will be better lit and considerably less dusty. The Museum will be more accessible as it will no longer be necessary to walk through an active biotechnological laboratory to reach it. Last and not least, the move is giving us a chance to sort the document collection more logically, something that researchers who’ve visited us in search of specific documents will appreciate!

Delft University’s Biological Labs 1: The “Palace of Light” on the Nieuwelaan.

At the beginning of 2016, the Laboratory for Microbiology, together with the rest of the Department of Biotechnology, will move out of its current building, destination the new Faulty building on the outskirts of Delft. This seems like a good moment to take a look at the previous lab where so many breakthroughs were made. It was known as the “Palace of Light” because people worked late into the night.

We are fortunate that, thanks to a commemorative book published when Beijerinck was a fairly new Professor and photographs taken just before the department moved out, we know what it looked like. At the time it was built, it was the most expensive laboratory in the University. An extension was added in 1911.

Beijerinck’s laboratory

Part of the building, on the left of the top photo, was the Professor’s house. The garden sloped gently down to a large canal (the canal’s edge can be seen as a white line across the bottom of the picture). It was in the greenhouse in this garden that the tobacco plants were grown for Beijerinck’s work on the Tobacco Mosaic Virus, and many famous microbial species were isolated from the soil and mud of the garden and canal.

We have a few pictures of the inside of the lab in Beijerinck’s time.

After Kluyver’s death and before everybody moved to the new (and current) building, everything was photographed. The photos are all numbered with corresponding floor plans so that we know not only which room is shown, but where the photographer was standing to take the picture. This is just a small sample.

The building (without the extension) is still there. After a number of trials and tribulations including the building of a major bridge close to the front door of Beijerinck and Kluyver’s house, it is now apartments. To mark the 100th anniversary of Beijerinck’s appointment, a plaque was unveiled next to the original laboratory door.

Celebrating Professors

During the first half of the 20th century, it seems to have been customary to make certificates, posters or books to commemorate special events. The Archive includes a number of photo albums showing laboratories in the University or even abroad, but three examples stand out, not least because of the considerable amount of work that went into them.

The first is a book made for Kluyver by three of his pupils (van Niel, Leeflang and Struyk) a few years after he became Delft’s Professor of Microbiology. The book compares Beijerinck’s 19th century approach to the wonders to be found in 1 gram of soil with Kluyver’s 20th century approach to the wonders associated with 1 gram of carbinol. That’s not students kneeling outside the Professor’s door in the 4th page, but representatives of industry!

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The second is a handmade poster (about the size of a large double bed) that was made to mark the 25th anniversary of Kluyver’s inaugural lecture. It shows notable features from those 25 years, including sketches of the laboratory, Kluyver’s most famous work (The Unity in Diversity) and his inaugural address (“Rede”) in which he emphasized the importance of applied research. Every rectangle represents a story.

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The Kluyver Flask (still used for growing submerged, well-mixed cultures) and a shaker for closed jars containing oxygen-free cultures are shown. During the Dutch “Starvation Winter” at the end of World War II, Delft’s Yeast and Spirits Factory gave their staff soup made from yeast extract at lunch time, and as one of their advisors, Kluyver regularly benefited from this at weekly meetings. Lastly, at a time when it was usual to stand if a Professor came into the room, the staff’s affection for Kluyver shines through in several squares teasing him about his smoking!

A book to mark van Iterson’s 25th anniversary as a Professor also falls into this category despite being essentially a photo album because the makers included all of his PhD students, postdocs and co-workers from other countries, showing who they were, what they did and what happened to them afterwards. van Iterson’s conviction that the primary job of a Professor is to teach is obvious from the fact that there’s 160 pages, each with one or more person on it. The example here shows J.E. van Amstel, the first woman to be granted a Doctorate in Delft.

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The Delft School of Microbiology Archives

The “Delft School of Microbiology” is based on the work of our first three biological Professors – Beijerinck, van Iterson and Kluyver. The Archive is a collection of  their papers, teaching aids, furniture and other materials and functions as a small museum in the Department of Biotechnology.

At the moment, the collection is being digitised and catalogued. This blog will report on some of the interesting and sometimes unexpected things to be found in the collection.

We’ll also cast an occaisional glance at our honorary member, the original Delft microscopist and microbiologist, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.

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