Imperial College London

Celebrating the life of a virologist who was 'ahead of her time'

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Beverly Griffin in 1979. Image courtesy of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives

Beverly Griffin in 1979. Image courtesy of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives.

Beverly Griffin, Emeritus Professor of Virology at Imperial, has passed away at the age of 86.

Born in 1930 in Louisiana, USA, Beverly was an alumnus of Baylor University, where she gained a Bachelor of Science in 1951. She went on to receive doctorates from the University of Virginia in 1955 and the University of Cambridge in 1958.

In 1968 Beverly began work at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge with Fred Sanger, before joining the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) laboratories at Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1972. She made the move to the Royal Postgraduate Medical School at Hammersmith Hospital in 1984 to become Professor of Virology, where she worked until her retirement in 1996.

Beverly was a very thoughtful, generous and inspiring mentor.

– Martin Allday

Professor of Virology and Cell Biology

Professor Griffin’s most notable achievement at the ICRF (as described by the Francis Crick Institute) was establishing the sequence of the mouse polyomavirus. At its completion in 1980, it was one of the longest pieces of DNA sequenced at 5,293 base pairs. 

Beverly’s work expanded into the study of the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) – the causative agent of a number of cancers. Professor Paul Farrell, head of Imperial’s Section of Virology, said that Professor Griffin was ‘ahead of her time’ in many ways.

“Beverly made very important contributions to the field of Epstein-Barr virus research. Following her work on polyoma, she cloned all the genome fragments of EBV that were subsequently used in Fred Sanger’s department at LMB to determine the virus’s genome sequence.

“She also identified regions of the EBV genome that are expressed in cases of nasopharyngeal cancer and she reported their ability to cause cancer-like growth properties in human cells. This was puzzling at first because there did not seem to be viral genes that could account for her results. Now we know that EBV makes a large number of micro RNAs from this part of the viral genome and these are thought to play an important role in some EBV associated cancers.  So she was on to something important but micro RNAs had not been discovered when she did her early work on this.”

It was partly a shared interest in EBV research that led Beverly to meet her future husband, the Nobel laureate Tomas Lindahl. He later joined her in London, where he is now an Emeritus Scientist at the Francis Crick Institute.

Beverly was also a great supporter of Professor Elizabeth Molyneux’s work treating childhood cancers in sub-Saharan Africa. A particular focus was Burkitt’s lymphoma, another condition caused by EBV. Having made many trips to Malawi to assist first-hand, Professor Griffin was instrumental in the making of a documentary film on the disease. ‘Surviving Burkitts’ follows a mother’s journey to Malawi to understand more about the cancer that took her son’s life, and what can be done to help children affected in the country.

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Alongside her own work, Professor Griffin helped train and inspire a new generation of virologists. Those to have worked under her include Dr Alison McBride, head of the DNA Tumor Virus Section at the Laboratory of Viral Diseases in Washington DC, and Professor Dorothy Crawford, who was Robert Irvine Professor of Medical Microbiology at the University of Edinburgh.

Imperial’s Professor Martin Allday, who worked with Professor Griffin at Hammersmith’s Royal Postgraduate Medical School, also paid tribute to her: “I studied for my PhD with Beverly and she was a very thoughtful, generous and inspiring mentor. During this period some of Beverly’s ideas were considered by some to be rather out of left field, but by focusing on the role of EBV in epithelial cancer, she was one of the first to demonstrate that the virus had different gene expression programmes in different types of cells.

“Moreover, as Paul Farrell highlighted, she identified viral functions that would only be understood more than a decade later and are now considered central to our understanding of EBV biology.”

Reporter

Mr Al McCartney

Mr Al McCartney
Faculty of Medicine Centre

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Contact details

Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 2961
Email: a.mccartney@imperial.ac.uk

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