Microbiology Heroes Hall of Fame

The teacher that nudged you to study life sciences, the pioneer that saved many lives – we are surrounded by so many unsung heroes. Let’s give these heroes a big stage and tell their stories – so that we may inspire many more.

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Add your hero to the gallery!

Who opened your eyes to the hidden microbial world? Who inspired you to become a microbiologist?

The story of my hero

  • Tell us about your microbiology hero and we will share your story in our Hall of Fame.

Bernardo Elias Soares, MD, PhD

With regard to microbiology heroes, I much praise Sir Alexander Fleming for his breakthrough discovery of penicillin, since it was made totally by chance, out of “serendipity”. However, those who inspired me and whose memory is forever kept in my mind were the three pioneers of hygiene as a tool to avoid infection:

  1. First, in the 1840s, an Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semelweiss, took a big step forward being the one to show how hand-washing impactated in reducing the rate of hospital infection, at a time there was not yet knowledge of microbiology .
  2. Then a few years later, in 1854, a British lady breaks barriers again as the first to implement good care and cleanliness as part of treatment at the Scutari military hospital, one of the main battlefields of Crimean War. Her name was Florence Nightingale, founder of the nursing profession.
  3. The third one could be none other tha Louis Pasteur, a french chemist who among many brilliant findings, demonstrated the very existence of microbes and the absolute need for hygiene during medical procedures, to protect the professional and the patient from infection. He is so called “the father of microbiology’. His work gave way to further trials in the field of infection control, like the work of Joseph Lister, the British surgeon who “invented “ antisseptics and widened their use in surgeries and clinics. Since then, improvements have followed till present day.

Alexandra Veress

Sir Alexander Fleming because of his outbreaking and accidental discovery.

Gianfranco Donelli

I have dedicated myself to the study of microbial biofilms since 1988, fascinated by the scientific results obtained in this field by a couple of leading scientists who, with their pioneering researches, have opened worldwide a new stimulating path in the field of microbiology: the first, John William (Bill for friends) Costerton, Canadian by birth, directed since 2003 until his death in 2012 the well-known Center for Biofilm Engineering located on the central campus of Montana State University in Bozeman (USA); and the Danish Niels Hoiby, who has set up and leads from decades a renown laboratory for the study of bacterial biofilms at the University of Copenhagen, devoting himself in particular to the study of the role of biofilms in cystic fibrosis but also exploring other infectious pathologies associated with biofilms. Both of these scientists who first promoted, among all over the world microbiologists, the view that sessile growing bacteria in biofilms strongly differ from their planktonic, free-floating, counterparts, have taught me a lot and I had the pleasure and honor of being their friend.

Kostas Kormas

My hero is Farooq Azam. I remember, towards the end of my PhD, when I first read the 1983 paper in “Marine Ecology Progress Series”, which he co-authored with a fantastic group of scientists on the microbial loop, I decided I only wanedt to work with aquatic organisms which are invidible to the eye. As a then young scientist, I was awed by the way these tiny and diverse aquatic creatures form communities, not mere assemblages, and their collective metabolism regulates the vast ocean. And to be honest, I am still awed by them! Thank you, Farooq!

Patrik Bavoil's heroes

Regine Hengge's Microbiology Heroes

Who had the most positive influence on your career? Who is your microbiology hero/heroine and why?

“The person to whom I owe most in my career, is certainly Winfried Boos, a specialist in bacterial transport systems, who was my PhD supervisor and—after my postdoc stay in the US—offered me an ‘assistant’ position in his group. This included some lab space, a functioning infrastructure and a discussion partner and mentor whenever I needed one, but I would have to raise my own grant money for a research topic I could freely choose. This kind of freedom and responsibility to build up what is now called a junior group was unheard of at the time in Germany! Thinking about potential research topics, I realized that molecular microbiologists were all following ‘Monod’s dogma’, i.e. to use exponentially growing cultures in all their experiments in order to get reproducible results. Although it had been observed that stationary phase cells of E. coli were much more stress-resistant than growing cells, nothing was known about the underlying molecular biology. About one and a half years after starting with wild-type E. coli, I found the master regulator of stationary phase gene expression. Nothing of this would have happened if Winfried Boos had not given me total freedom to study what I wanted.

“Looking back into the history of microbiology, my hero is Ferdinand Cohn, a founder of both plant and microbial physiology. In his most famous paper (published in 1876), he did not only describe the identification and sporulation of Bacillus subtilis, but in fact gave an admirably detailed, totally correct and beautifully written account of the formation of what is now called a pellicle biofilm. Looking over his publications, it becomes apparent that bacterial multicellularity was one of his long-term research interests—at a time when some of his colleagues still disputed the existence of different bacterial species.”

Read more about Professor Regine Hengge’s inspiring career on a recent Spotlight in the Professional Development section of FEMS Microbiology Letters (FEMS Microbiology Letters, Volume 366, Issue 2, 1 January 2019, fny293).

Dr Rich Boden's heroes

Dr Ann P Wood formerly of King’s College London and the University Of Warwick (UK). Physiologist and taxonomist, worked on sulfur autotrophs and methylotrophs, mostly. She was the first academic I met who was clearly from a working class background like me, an exceptional lecturer and supervisor and a real survivor. I named the genus Annwoodia in the Nitrosomonadales of the Betaproteobacteria in her honour in 2017.

Mrs Grace Frankland, wife of Professor Percy Frankland (for who buildings at the University of Dundee and University of Birmingham are named) – he was a chemist and she was a microbiologist and they discovered Flavobacterium aquatile, Microbacterium arborescens and Bacillus cereus, amongst other species. They also discovered Nitrosomonas europaea two years before Winogradsky but didn’t realise it at the time!

I was very lucky to meet their great grand-daughter Linda in March of this year. Percy’s father was Sir Edward Frankland and Grace and Percy’s son was also called Edward – he was a chemist who then became a novelist – and his children were the biologist Dr Helga Frankland, the farmer Mr Raven Frankland (who was married to the mycologist Dr Juliet Frankland), and Dr Noble Frankland – who is still alive – who is a former Director General of the Imperial War Museum. Quite a dynasty!

I would also add Professor S John Pirt (Queen Elizabeth College and then King’s College London) who died about 20 years ago, but his “yellow book” remains a very useful and enduring (if dry) resource on growth physiology.

Professor Donovan P Kelly, Professor Emeritus at the University of Warwick has been a mentor and inspiration for about 15 years now and when I look back through his early work from the 1960s, very elegant and deceptively simple experiments that gave major game-changing results – that is all we can ever aspire to really.

Laura Lincoln, Events & Project Manager, Society for Applied Microbiology

Dr. Margaret McFall-Ngai, Professor and Director of the Pacific Biosciences Research Center at the University of Hawaii Manao. She’s inspirational and highly regarded for her work promoting microbiology as the cornerstone of the biological sciences. When McFall-Ngai’s scientific career began in 1978, microbes were primarily viewed as pathogens or agents of decomposition.

Since then, Margaret’s work using a binary squid–bacterial symbiosis system to characterize animal microbiomes has contributed to expanding the once-narrow view of the microbial world.

She’s also hugely charismatic and SfAM was delighted to host her brilliant and entertaining Environmental Microbiology lecture in 2016.”


My microbiology hero is Prof.Victoria Akpata of University of Lagos, Lagos. She teaches microbiology so well that you will always want to learn more. She is always ready to correct you with love where you did not get it right. She is very proud of her students and never tired of encouraging them. Most of her students have made it in Microbiology. She is a Professor of many Professors that used to be her students.

Brian Hedlund's hero

Antonio Ventosa's heroes

Julie Olson's heroes

Pascale Cossart's hero

The persons who had the most positive influence on my career are first Jean Montreuil, who accepted me in his lab as a chemist and helped me to reorient my master towards biochemistry; then Georges Cohen, who accepted me in the Pasteur Institute and left me totally free to do what I wanted, i.e. protein sequencing; then Moshe Yaniv, who one day came back from Boston with the handout from the Maxam and Gilbert lab before publication of the paper describing how to sequence DNA – and proposed that I should come to his lab for a post doctorate and start cloning the gene corresponding to the protein I was studying and to sequence it; Brigitte Gicquel, who was interested in collaborating with me to sequence the crp gene – the beginning of a wonderful collaboration; John Beckwith and Richard Ebright, with whom we investigated the DNA binding site of CAP; Julian Davies, who accepted Brigitte and myself into his lab in 1986 to start investigating infectious diseases; and finally Marianne Grunberg-Manago, who has supported me much more than I was aware of…and probably played a key role in my election to the French Academy. She was the one who asked me to take over the course that she had been organising for decades in Spetses and which I am still running now.”

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Mohd Zulfikli Salleh's hero

Avicenna, father of early modern medicine and Alexander Fleming, on his discovery of penicillin. Even though Avicenna is not regarded as one of the prominent microbiologist by modern science, he is, without any doubts one of the most famous Persian polymaths who contribute greatly in many aspects of science and particularly in medicine. He is one of the earliest scientist who describe the existence of microorganisms and their relation with human. Discovering penicillin in 1928, Alexander Fleming has shown the world how a small molecule can save humanity. Since then, many more antibiotics being discovered to treat bacterial infections.”

Kathleen Scott's heroes

We are lucky that there are so many in our field who are graced with grit, wit and perspective. Sabine Heinhorst and Gordon Cannon, who worked on their research as a team, are particularly heroic, in my opinion. They have done amazingly elegant, tricky work to characterise carboxysomes (microcompartments present in many autotrophic bacteria). This work has some amazing repercussions for our understanding of carbon fixation, and bacterial cell architecture e.g. (Dou et al.2008; Heinhorst et al.2006; Menon et al.2008). I was able to observe their mentorship of a series of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows and was struck by how they hit the perfect balance between highest, exacting standards and compassion.

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J.M. Claverie's hero

However defective are the smallest parasitic bacteria we know today, however complex and large are the giant viruses we keep discovering, the conceptual wall build by Lwoff, 60 years ago, is still solidly standing between viruses and cells.— J.M. Claverie, FEMS 2019 Programme Committee

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David Walker’s hero

The ‘unsung microbiology hero’ I would like to nominate is Lola Esland. She is a friend of mine getting her PhD at Imperial College London, trying to repurpose bacterial secretion systems to inject proteins into plants. Which is exciting, but not why she is my microbiology hero. That is because of her fortitude in dealing with the difficulties of being a very early career researcher, and her dedication to being an ever more ethical participant within society. Being a great scientist requires being a great person.—David Walker, FEMS intern via Imperial College, UK

Ute Römling's heroes

My scientific heroes of today, sung and unsung, are the authors and editors of protocol collections; researchers who develop and broadly distribute well working genetic tools and approaches as well as all other individuals that develop widely applicable methodologies and approaches. I remember consulting those knowledge resources myself on a regular basis during my post-doctoral work. These persons usually spend a lot of intellectual capacity to optimize procedures etc, but often stay in the background. At the same time, however, they provide the basis for the successful performance of numerous research projects enabling novel discoveries for young as well as established researchers. Immediately to my mind comes ‘Molecular cloning: A laboratory manual’ edited by Tom Maniatis, Ed F. Fritsch and Joe Sambrook, and ‘Current Protocols in Molecular Biology’ by Fred Ausubel. Without the accuracy in the description and the extended trouble shooting sections, which aided to trust these experimental approaches and widely distributed the knowledge, microbiology and life science in general would not be as prosperous and successful as it is today.— Ute Römling, FEMS 2019 Programme Committee


Bill Gates' heroes

Gabriella Campadelli-Fiume's heroes

Two scientists made a major impact on my scientific life. The first was my husband, Luigi Fiume. By virtue of his own example, he taught me intellectual honesty and integrity, to be a dedicated scientist, to distinguish between ambition and vanity, not to be flattered by the glitter of science. Yet, I did not acquire self-awareness. The second was Bernard Roizman, considered to be the father of herpesvirology. I met him when I was in my mid 30’s, after my second daughter was born. Remarkably, he did not care much that I worked in an obscure laboratory in a scientifically non-prominent country, or that I had not had solid training except self-teaching. He was confident that I could become a good scientist, prompted me to take a genetic approach to HSV and invited me to his lab, a place reputed to be the Hallowed Halls of Herpesvirology. I built my self-awareness slowly, thanks to his trust in me. I am grateful to both.
At the twilight of my career, Alfredo Nicosia and the late Riccardo Cortese – two extraordinary researchers – made a significant impact on me. They decided to take the retargeted oHSVs I designed to the translational phase, and asked me to join them. In a way, I was too old to fully rewire myself and to proficiently take profit of such an amazing opportunity. Yet, they managed to introduce me to the translational medical science. I am deeply grateful.”—Gabriella Campadelli-Fiume, Head of the molecular virology laboratory in the Department of Experimental Medicine, University of Bologna, co-founder of EAM

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Bauke Oudega's hero

Hilary Lappin-Scott's heroes

My Microbiology heroes include Bill Costerton, Claude E ZoBell and Rita Colwell. I admire each of these because they broadened away from a narrow research field to address very broad, interdisciplinary research questions in microbial ecology, all consequently having a global impact. The legacies of my three microbiology heroes are still highly relevant in today’s world too. Claude ZoBell won my admiration by ‘spawning’ not one but multiple new research fields, Rita Colwell by cleverly aligning many different research fields to reach new understandings of health and disease in ecosystems. Her legacy includes the ‘next steps’ of now using mathematical modelling in current management strategies for diseases.—Hilary Lappin-Scott, FEMS Vice President

The person who had the most positive influence on my career was J. W. (Bill) Costerton. He was my advisor during my Research Fellowship at Calgary University and I was part of a very large, interdisciplinary team of researchers in his lab. Bill ensured that I had many opportunities to develop both my research and research leadership skills and I am grateful for his support.

Jim Prosser's hero

Teja Sirec's heroes

I have met many extraordinary scientists – although young microbiologists, the students working with me in the lab have been the main source of inspiration. Helping them out to discover the wonderful world of bacteria and learning how powerful these tiny creatures can be has been truly rewarding.”—Teja Sirec, FEMS volunteer

Matthew Harvey's hero

Tracy Palmer's heroes

There are so many microbiologists out there who are carrying out fantastic science! However, I would distil my answer down to two people. The first of those is Peter Mitchell. The chemiosmotic hypothesis for ATP generation during oxidative phosphorylation is just beautiful—so simple, so elegant. I remember as a PhD student I attended a small bioenergetics conference at the Royal Society in London and Mitchell was there, it was not long before he died. Of course, I was far too starstruck to speak to him! My second is a heroine and someone who continues to have a positive influence on my career. As a PhD student, I undertook a short period in a lab in Oxford where I was supervised by an amazing postdoc called Liz Sockett. Shortly afterwards Liz was awarded a microbiology lectureship at Nottingham University—she was the first female scientist I knew who made the transition to independence. I think Liz recognised my total lack of self-confidence and whenever I saw her she would tell me that I was good enough to run my own group and I should be applying for things. Without Liz’s support I’m not sure I would ever have had the courage to ‘go for it’. Now I do my best to try and instil that self-confidence in others because I know how much of a difference it made to me.—Tracy Palmer, Professor of Molecular Microbiology, University of Dundee, EAM member

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Thomasz Benedyk’s heroes

Pointing a single person would be definitely very difficult. Every person who contributed in developing a technique today known as CRISPR-Cas9 at its early stages showed a remarkable faith in basic research and proved its tremendous significance for almost all game-changing discoveries.”—Thomasz Benedyk, FEMS Volunteer

Carianne Buurmeijer's heroes

Vi Nguyen's hero