When I joined the King's College London Department of Botany I was given a room on the top floor of 68 Half Moon Lane, a squat Georgian building whose previous existence had seen it successively as a Home for Inebriate Women, run by the Church of England Temperance Society, a Children's Home and a Private School. The Department had moved from the main College site in the Strand in December 1952. Subsequently the leases of three detached Victorian houses (62, 64 and 66) were acquired and 64 and 66 were converted for teaching and research. At that time King's was fortunate to have exceptionally gifted Professors of Botany and Zoology (Thomas Bennet-Clark and James Danielli) who were resolved to move their departments from cramped and totally inadequate accommodation in the Strand to a new building to be constructed in the rear gardens of the Half Moon Lane properties. Delawyck Crescent had not been built at this time and Bennet-Clark had a crop of woad (Isatis tinctoria) on that site. Before their plans could be implemented J.T. Randall (Professor of Biophysics, co-inventor of the cavity-magnetron and the force behind the demonstration in King's College that DNA had a helical molecular structure) managed to gain priority for his department to be rehoused in Drury Lane. Bennet-Clark and Danielli felt considerably put out and left King's to found Schools of Biological Sciences in the new Universities of East Anglia and Sussex respectively. Four of the more senior Botany staff followed them. J.T. Randall was one of those responsible for what was the inspired replacement of Bennet-Clark by F.R. Whatley, an Englishman who was working in California. Whatley, together with Daniel Arnon, had discovered the process of photophosphorylation in plants, the process by which plants convert light energy into chemical energy and upon which all higher organisms ultimately depend.
Whatley got agreement for the first stage of a new Biological Sciences Building and the replacement of the staff that had left. A great hole was excavated in the rear gardens and an unattractive concrete and steel monolith was erected. The windowless east end is in fact a temporary end where stage 11, comprising accommodation for Zoology was to follow. In 1968 we moved in, but as King's College priorities were in a continuous state of flux and as Danielli's successor made no secret of his personal antipathy towards a move to Dulwich, there was to be no second stage. Despite its austere exterior, the interior was most satisfactory with about 2000m2 of floor space, a large lecture theatre and library, four teaching laboratories, five substantial research laboratories, an electron-microscopy suite, sundry specialised teaching and research facilities, a workshop, most of the roof space fitted as a greenhouse and a boiler- room big enough for a liner. Improved facilities and increased space led to increases in student numbers and academic visitors and greater productivity. Our relatively small numbers enabled most of the building to be open access to staff and postgraduates and to operate 24 hours a day and 365 days a year.
Bioenergetics provided the focus for much of the research and included the objective of understanding the light-reactions of plants with the very long term aim of devising artificial systems for the production of fuel from sunlight and water. Other studies on alternative energy sources were at rather lower levels of technology. Research was conducted on the development of chloroplasts, their function and the interaction of nuclear and chloroplast genomes. Novel plant constituents as possible causes of human and animal disease or with potential for use as pharmaceuticals or for other purposes were identified and studied. The feasibility of obtaining high value plant products by the continuous culture of plant cells was also investigated. Basic studies on seed biology led to low technology procedures for seed storage at farm level in the developing world. Peter Moore's work on vegetational history enabled Pat Wiltshire to combine it with her undergraduate and postgraduate experience in microbiology and parasitology so as to create a set of formidable forensic skills which have recently brought her attention from the media.
The sub-basement is close to one of the tributaries of the Effra, if not actually part of it, and has to be pumped out whenever the water table rises. This aquatic environment was found to contain a rare leech, only known from one other location in the U.K., thus possibly making the building Dulwich's top site for nature conservation. As no one had ever come up with any use for the sub-basement, other than being our own flood plain, it was 'sealed off' by manhole covers. On one cold and very wet November Friday afternoon I found Richard Rice, Chief Technician, clad only in his red underpants and waist deep down a manhole in cold and visibly rising water not far from flooding the basement which contained much of our research and equipment. He was detaching the broken-down pump, already submerged, under the instruction and anxious gaze of Peter Andrews, Chief Workshop Technician. The pump was quickly repaired and reinstalled and the day was saved. It wasn't their job to do this, but the Works Department in the Strand had pointed out that as it was Friday afternoon they wouldn't come down until Monday morning. This episode was typical of our staff, many of them locally recruited, and it also served to reinforce our prejudices about "them up there". Not all of our neighbours were such solid citizens as was testified by the bullet holes in our windows, though I only once witnessed an actual strike.
The Department had seven good years with Whatley before he moved to the Sheridan Chair of Botany at Oxford in 1971. The Professor of Zoology, who had refused to bring his Department to Dulwich, had the temerity to attempt to take us over, but this fell through when he found himself in a minority of one. Arthur Bell joined us as Head of Department in 1972, moving on to become Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 1981 at the very moment that radical institutional mergers were ordained for the University of London. Mrs Thatcher was on the warpath and academics were high on the hit-list which included the GLC, militant trade unionists and the Argentinian Junta. Redundancies were in the air and the spectre of a Botany/Zoology merger reappeared. The majority of academics agreed that departmental mergers of this type are not recipes for success and though the merger negotiations with Queen Elizabeth College and Chelsea College lasted until mid 1985, the decisions of King's College academics with respect to the merger of Botany and Zoology were overridden by the predominantly lay College Council. Our level of performance was maintained until we moved from Dulwich to Kensington to join a very large department which turned out to be a failing one, failure was reinforced by adding yet more departments, funding was not forthcoming, assets were stripped, senior staff were not replaced and the Biological Sciences degree courses have been closed. Thus Botany and Zoology join Chemistry and Geology in the loss from King's College of the Departments associated with four of the eight foundation chairs in the basic sciences which were first filled between 1830 and 1836 and which all had incumbents of the highest quality.
Some time after the departure of the botanists their building was extensively refurbished and refitted to accommodate the James Black Foundation headed by Sir James Black, Professor of Analytical Pharmacology in King's College Hospital Medical School. Sir James shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology of Medicine in 1988 for the discovery of two new classes of pharmaceuticals, the beta-blockers and the histamine antagonists. These were multi-million pound earners for British companies. The Foundation was set up with industrial money as a non-profit making organisation for the pursuit of blue-skies research into new types of pharmaceuticals and continues to this day.