Prof Simon Baumberg

Outstanding microbiologist

SIMON Baumberg, of Leeds University, who has died after a short illness aged 67, was one of the most respected members of the UK's microbiology community.

He joined the genetics department at Leeds University shortly after its foundation in the mid-sixties and spent the rest of his career there, retiring as Professor of Bacterial Genetics in 2005.

He was stimulated by the expertise of the many other biologists at Leeds and he found the environment a comfortable one in which to teach and carry out research.

This research furthered the understanding of the genetics of bacteria, with important implications for the development of new drugs.

As one of the outstanding figures in the British microbiology community, Professor Baumberg attracted many postgraduates who benefited from his close personal instruction and his sustaining encouragement. Most of them went on to become part of a network of friends that stretched across many countries. He had two spells as head of the department of genetics.

Prof Baumberg had a remarkably broad curiosity about the molecular sciences and a defining facet of his character was his commitment to the common good.

He served on the governing bodies of the Genetics Society and the Society for General Microbiology and on a number of committees of the Medical Research Council, including its Stem Cell Users Liaison Committee. He was a member of the biological sciences panel for the 1996 and 2001 research assessment exercises.

His understanding of complex issues outside his specialisms, his lucid presentations and his high ethical standards won him the admiration and respect of his colleagues on the MRC, and in 2005 an OBE, which, for such a self-effacing individual,was a source of mild embarrassment.

He was actively involved with the Jewish community in Leeds and during the 1980s was active in the Soviet Jewry campaign. He served as chair of Leeds Masorti community and was on the board of the Sinai Reform synagogue.

Born to Polish-Jewish parents and brought up in Willesden Green, London, he was educated at St Paul's School, and read chemistry on a scholarship at Merton College, Oxford, where his life-long fascination with genetics began.

Even at the outset Prof Baumberg demonstrated a remarkable ability for independent critical thinking. He preferred an explanation for the extraordinary ability of bacteria to respond to changes in their environment which ran counter to the ideas of his supervisor, the Nobel laureate C. S. Hinshelwood. History proved him right.

Before starting his degree course he had spent a year in Israel.

At Oxford he met Ruth Geiger, who was reading mathematics at Somerville. They were married in 1963 and, after two years in the United States, where he did a postdoctoral fellowship at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, moved to Leeds in 1966 to lecture in the newly-formed genetics department at Leeds University, where he remained until his retirement in 2005.

As a teacher he was universally admired for his gentle but persuasive approach. Many former students enjoyed his friendship .

Throughout his career Simon was valued for his sound judgment, integrity and sense of fair play, as well as his outstanding scholarship.

His range of interests was remarkably diverse. Friends found there was barely a book they could mention which he had not read, nor a work of music that he had not heard.

He had a passion for classical music, particularly the 20th century masters, and almost always he had a comment or an insight that added something to their own enjoyment.

The same was true of the visual arts: he looked at painting, sculpture and architecture with a shrewd and appreciative eye. His bookshelves were crowded with works of history and biography. His pleasure in the arts remained intense right until the end of his life. His passion for knowledge was infectious and endearing.

Among his favourite recreations were hill-walking and, in retirement, choral singing.

He is survived by his wife Ruth and their sons Jeremy, Adam and Ben and four grandchildren. Another son predeceased him.