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Department of Zoology


Dr A.V. (Bill) Grimstone (1933 – 2018)

An appreciation by Dr Brad Amos FRS (PhD in Zoology, 1970)

Delivered during a walk round the Chapel and Gardens of Pembroke College, 21st June 2019

I was Bill Grimstone’s first research student and I wish to record some comments about him as a supervisor and the debt I owe him. My final year as an undergraduate in Oxford was 1966. In that year Bill published, along with his young colleague Ian Gibbons, a 27-page paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, showing electron microscope images which made my eyes pop out of my head and attracted me to seek to come to Cambridge to work with him. These showed the so-called ‘9 plus two’ structure, which was an enigmatic and beautiful pattern inside the whip-like protrusions from the cellular surface (called cilia or flagella) that was revealed by the electron microscope at that time.  The subject was important because the same complex asymmetrical structure had evidently persisted through evolution, being almost identical in single-celled organisms (protozoa) and in humans.  Bill was an adept in the use of the electron microscope and in the sixties his images had brought him to worldwide attention and were even shown in the British Museum (Natural History). The reasons that his images were the best were his supreme skill and patience in microscopy and also his choice of a subject for his PhD: the protozoan,Trichonympha, which has thousands of flagella stacked parallel and in rows level with each other like the matches in a book of matches. This meant that a single thin section not quite perpendicular to the flagella cut through successively deeper levels along the row and was thus equivalent to a perfect series of serial sections (which was technically impossible to obtain).

I arrived in Cambridge somewhat under a cloud because I had obtained a poor first degree in Oxford and Bill fixed me up with a research assistantship which gave me the chance to begin in research and arranged for membership of Pembroke which gave me a community in addition to that of the Zoology department. He spent a day or two showing me how to cut sections for the EM but left most of my direct instruction to a research staff member in the Department, and to an elderly technician. He did not regard his role as direct instruction.  He left me to choose my research topic and get on with it. I went to him with my first technical problem and he asked me if I had studied the biography of the Duke of Wellington.  He explained that a young officer had galloped up to Wellington and said ‘Sir, my battalion is trapped in a deep valley and the French are pouring fire down upon us.’  To which Wellington replied ‘You’ve got yourself into a mess, and you’ll have to get yourself out of it’.

But I do not want to give the impression that he was neglectful. He taught me to write, copying his terse limpid style and what to read, not just in science. Within weeks of my arrival he encouraged me to attend the Biology of Cells undergraduate course in order to give supervisions on it, to take a course on scientific German, to learn to touch type and to read Gombrich on Art.

More importantly, he arranged for me to go to the LMB and meet Aaron Klug, with whom he was working. It was a tremendous compliment to me to be thought worthy to go and discuss with Aaron, whom even I knew (decades before he was awarded the Nobel Prize) was the greatest theoretician of molecular biology of his time.  To be treated seriously by Bill was the biggest boost any young researcher could have.

I tried unsuccessfully to imitate Bills social conversation, which consisted largely of crisp misanthropic one-liners.  In spite of the misogyny of his cohort of men, I noticed that women were always fascinated by his intelligence, his sensitivity and his culture.  His conversation was modelled on the style of H. H. Munro’s Saki stories (which he told me to read). He liked to be outrageously dismissive, even of himself.  For example, he told me that the definition of a microscopist was someone who was prepared to sit through a whole conference of slides in order to show his own.  He could be quite cutting: I remember a party where a woman kept telling everyone that she was surprised to have been invited because she scarcely knew the hostess and he replied that she had probably been invited by mistake.

In the end, I realized that the carapace of witty indifference that he pulled over himself was a result of a fundamental lack of confidence about his ability in science.  It was a major struggle for me to get him to agree to co-author his final scientific paper in 1979, based on some EM images of his and experiments and optical microscopy of mine.  We drifted apart when I failed to persuade him to publish any more of the metal cabinet full of original and beautiful EM discoveries that stood in his room. Rather than Science, his family and Pembroke became his main concerns.

Bill then spent much of the summers with his young family in a somewhat decrepit forester’s cottage which he managed to hire cheaply on the Royal estate at Sandringham. He made the mistake of re-roofing the cottage at his own expense upon which the less-than-gracious factors of Her Majesty raised the rent so high that he could no longer afford it. On hearing that I needed samples of sphagnum moss from a special location in order to obtain shelled amoebae for teaching the IB Biology of Organisms he drove with me to Sandringham and showed me how to wriggle under the wire to gain access to the Duke’s Duck Pond, which  the locals did in those innocent days (mid 70s).

I have thought a lot about why such a talented and intelligent man should choose to abandon science. It must be remembered that when Bill came up to Pembroke it was 1952, when the structure of DNA had not yet been published. As he said, biological scientists were scandalously slow in understanding its implications, and his mentors were elderly polymaths such as the prodigiously learned and cultured Chinese scholar, musicologist and early X-ray diffraction pioneer Lawrence Picken (his supervisor) rather than specialists in the new genetics and molecular biology. Having done so much to elucidate the 9 plus 2 structure, Bill handed the detailed structure analysis to Klug and his colleagues in the MRC laboratory of Molecular Biology. Ian Gibbons carried forward the biochemical analysis of the 9 + 2.  Instead of trying to build up a research group of his own, Bill took on the editorship of the failing Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science and turned it into the modern and successful Journal of Cell Science.  This was the turning point of a talented but modest and sensitive man away from the thunder of modern scientific research, where grants rather than truth are often the only objects valued by University administrators.

 My last contact with Bill was in 2012, when I was asked to give a prestigious lecture to the Royal Society. I invited him to attend but he replied that age and infirmity prevented him from going to London, remarking ‘What an eminent man you have become!’   I am glad that I had that last opportunity to reply, assuring him that whatever success I have had in research has been made possible by his early faith in me.


A.V. Grimstone & I.R. Gibbons (1966) The fine structure of the centriolar apparatus and associated structures of the complex flagellates Trichonympha and PseudotrichonymphaProc. Roy. Soc.  B, 250, 215-242.

Amos,W.B. Grimstone, A.V., Rothschild, L.J. & Allen, R.D. (1979) Structure, protein composition and birefringence of the costa: a motile flagellar root fibre in the flagellate Trichomonas. J.Cell Science 35, 139-164.

Lotmar, W., and Picken, L. E. R. (1942). Über das Röntgendiagramm von getrocknetem Muskel Helv. Chim. Acta 26, 538