International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

The E. C. Slater Lecture

(inaugurated: 1985 in Amsterdam)

Amsterdam1985G. K. Radda, UK
Prague1988K. Martinek, CSR
Jerusalem1991Y. Nishizuka, Japan
New Delhi1994N. H. Chua, USA
San Franscisco1997W. Neupert, Germany
Birmingham2000A. Ephrussi, Germany
Montreal2003S. Pfeffer, USA
Kyoto2006P. Cossart, France
Shanghai2009Robert Roeder, USA

Bill Slater at 90

Contributed by Piet Borst,
The Netherlands Cancer Institute – Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Hospital, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Copied from IUBMB Life, Volume 59 Issue 1 2007

On 16 January 2007 Bill (E.C.) Slater reached the respectable age of 90. As one of the pillars of IUBMB, one of the founding fathers of modern Dutch biochemistry and one of the most successful scientists and teachers of the second half of the 20th century he can look back on a highly productive professional life. We salute him here for his contributions to IUBMB and wish him well for the coming years.

Anybody who saw Bill Slater cycle through Amsterdam, where he spent 30 years as Professor of Biochemistry and Chairman of the Department of Biochemistry, would not easily guess that this typical Dutchman was born in Australia and still has Australian nationality. Bill never owned a car in Amsterdam and he cherished his Dutch bike. As he mentions in passing in his memoirs: ‘I recall the surprise of my colleagues in the USSR when I told them that, in contrast to the privileges of an Academy member in that country (car, dascha, extra salary, etc.), my only privilege as an Academic member in the Netherlands was being given the key to the bicycle shed’ (1). On bike and by public transport he moved between his many Dutch occupations. Bill was not a man claiming privileges. ‘Public money should be spent on research, not on taxis’, he once told me. His Biochemistry Department grew over the years into a mega-operation, serving four (sub)-faculties and distributed over three locations in the city; as the chief managing editor of Biochimica et Biophysica Acta he brought this journal to international fame (2); as a member of the Board of the Dutch Research Councils he helped allocate money to the best scientists; and as a member of the Netherlands Academy of the Arts and Sciences, he promoted biochemistry in many ways, e.g., by convincing the Academy that the fledgling sciences of Biochemistry and Biophysics merited a separate Academy Section.

From his base in Amsterdam, Slater increasingly contributed to the organization of biochemistry in the world. He was secretary of the Committee on Biochemical Nomenclature of IUPAC (1959 – 1964) and he contributed in many ways to the running of EMBO and the EMBL. He chaired the EMBO Fund Committee (1974 – 1978); he was the president of the EMBL Council and he was the chairman of the Search Committee that selected Lennart Philipson as the new director-general of EMBL to succeed John Kendrew.

Slater likes the scientific excitement and camaraderie of scientific meetings and until 1994 was one of the few biochemists in the world who could claim to have attended every single International Congress of Biochemistry organized by the IUB(MB). Hence, it is not surprising that a person of Slater’s scientific stature and managerial qualities would be recruited by the IUBMB for help. In 1964 he became a Council member, for 8 years (1971 – 1979) he acted as Treasurer of IUB, in 1985 he became President-elect and from 1988 – 1991 he served as President. That was not the end, however. Following the resignation of the then IUBMB Treasurer in 1998, Slater was invited by the IUBMB Executive Committee to become Treasurer for a second time. He served from 1999 – 2000.

Slater contributed to the governance of IUB(MB) in many ways. I recall only one famous incident, which concerned the sensitive relations of IUB with the ‘two Chinas’, Taiwan and mainland China. When Taiwan joined the IUB in 1961, China withdrew accusing the IUB council members of being ‘lackeys to American imperialism’. In the mid-1970s Slater applied for a visa to China without success, but finally managed to get there in 1979 by making use of an exchange programme between the Netherlands and Chinese Academies. A period of intense shuttle diplomacy followed, requiring 10 visits to China (including Taiwan), which finally led to the return of China to the IUB. The compromise crafted by Slater and IUB General Secretary Whelan became a model for other international scientific unions to deal with China and Taiwan (3). The Chinese were obviously impressed by Slater’s ingenuity and tenacity. They invited him to become a member of an International Advisory Panel for the Chinese University Development Project of the World Bank. This involved ‘extensive, not always comfortable, visits to universities all over China’, as Slater writes in his memoirs (1). No doubt, these visits contributed to the revival of Chinese biochemistry.

What has made Bill Slater so influential in world biochemistry is a unique combination of talents: scientific, teaching, managerial and social talents. In science Slater was a key figure in the field of bioenergetics in the period when the mechanism of mitochondrial oxidative phosporylation was elucidated. He gained a wide experience at the bench in his early years in Australia (1939 – 1946) and in the Molteno Institute in Cambridge (GB) in the lab of David Keilin (1946 – 1955, interrupted by a postdoctoral period with Severo Ochoa in New York University). In this phase of his career, Slater worked mainly by himself or with a single technician and this provided him with a great feeling for experiments. There was no problem that Slater could not translate into doable experiments; no hurdle that he could not circumvent. Through his authoritative reviews Slater spread the state-of-thebioenergetic-art throughout the world. Through his lectures and papers he attracted a host of good students, post-docs and senior collaborators. In fact, Bill Slater was the driving force (with the late Laurens van Deenen) behind the introduction of modern biochemistry in the Netherlands (4).

Bill Slater also taught his students to play by the rules. Integrity, fairness to colleagues and competitors, avoiding conflicts of interest, generosity in allocating credit and sharing reagents, admitting mistakes (but trying to avoid making them) all these virtues, now sometimes considered oldfashioned, were embodied in Slater. He taught by example. This does not mean that Slater does not like a spirited argument. He is not easily taken in by a smooth presentation and does not hesitate to expose flaws in experiment or reasoning. When colleagues called Slater a tough critic, he was always surprised, however. How can one do good experiments without critical discussions? How can one have a spirited discussion if scientists take criticism of their experiments or theories as a personal insult?

Slater freely shared his wide knowledge of biochemistry with anybody who was interested: How to do a good experiment, how to set up a new project, how to write up the results without hype or overinterpretation, how to critically analyze a paper, how to run a committee, how to enjoy science. He also taught many green and mature colleagues the essential administrative skills required for success in biochemistry. Slater had little patience with scientists who professed ignorance of financial details. Biochemistry is expensive and public money should be spent frugally and responsibly. Slater’s bookkeeping skills were legendary and his talents were not only used to save his lab from the usual bookkeeping errors of the central university administration, but also as the treasurer of the IUB and as the (nearly eternal) auditor of the EMBO finances. In 1972, shortly after Slater became Treasurer of the IUB for the first time, he created the IUB Investment Fund and left it in very good shape when he stepped down in 1979.

Exuding vitality and enthusiasm for science, Slater has remained a faithful and warmly welcomed visitor to biochemical conferences and, it is hard to fathom, he is still a singlehanded sea sailor. On behalf of his many friends we wish him a productive and healthy next decade.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I am grateful to Dr William J. Whelan (University of Miami, USA), Dr Monne S. G. van den Bergh and Dr Karel van Dam for helpful comments on the manuscript.

REFERENCES

  1. Slater,    E. C. (1997) An Australian biochemist in four countries. In Selected Topics in the History of Biochemistry: Personal Recollections V (Jaenicke, R. and Semenza, G. eds.). pp. 69 - 203, p. 88. Comprehensive Biochemistry, xl; Amsterdam.
  2. Slater, E. C. (1986)    Biochimica et Biophysica Acta: The Story of a Biochemical Journal, 122 pp+xii, Elsevier, Amsterdam.
  3. Slater, E. C., and Whelan, W. J. (1980) China to rejoin the IUB. Trends Biochem. Sci. 5, III – V.
  4. Van Helvoort, T. (2003) ‘Purifying’ science: E. C. Slater and postwar biochemistry in the Netherlands. University of Maastricht, The Netherlands. Hist. Sci., xli.