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Dr Roger Taylor 1929 – 2023

Dr Roger Taylor image

The BSI is saddened to learn about the recent death of Dr Roger Taylor who described B and T cells in 1970s Nature papers with Professor Martin Raff and made significant contributions to the field over decades.

Many colleagues from both his Mill Hill and Bristol laboratories will remember Roger Taylor as being uniquely talented both as an immunologist and as an inspiring mentor. He was born in Albury, Surrey in 1929, the first child of distinguished parents, both of whom were veterinarians. His father Ernest was recognised internationally as one of the leading Veterinary Parasitologists of his day, heading the Parasitology Department and serving for many years as Deputy Director of the Central Veterinary Laboratory, Weybridge; his mother Edith was in the vanguard of female graduates in the profession and one of the first to set up her own practice. Like his parents, Roger himself graduated from Liverpool Vet School and later claimed, with a mischievous smile, to be “the first vet in the UK sired by a vet out of a vet!”.

After graduation, Roger worked in practice for a while before doing his National Service as a Captain in the Royal Veterinary Corps in Kenya. Thereafter, his famously inquisitive nature, one that (as his younger brothers recalled) had fuelled all kinds of boyhood experiments, again came to the fore, impelling him to leave veterinary practice and commit to a career in medical research. He completed a PhD in Edinburgh and then, in the early 1960s, took up a position in the National Institute of Medical Research in Mill Hill, London. This was a defining moment, giving him entry into one of the world’s leading laboratories engaged in the emerging science of immunology.

It is difficult for modern practitioners to understand just how little was then known about the functioning of the immune system. Foremost among the key players seemed to be lymphocytes, some of which were derived from the bone marrow (later called B cells), others from the thymus (later called T cells), but how did these subsets work together? Moreover, since all lymphocytes were morphologically identical down the microscope, how could the subsets be distinguished from one another? As Roger said himself, immunology was in its golden age where almost every experiment yielded something new; the sense of excitement was palpable.

A series of Letters to Nature then track Roger’s early work in the mouse models of the time, using antibody responses to foreign antigens such as bovine serum albumin or sheep erythrocytes as a measure of immune competence. Removing the thymus from animals either neonatally or later in life allowed one to study the waning contribution with age of the thymic input to responsiveness. Moreover, once the assays could distinguish immunoglobulin class, early thymectomy made clear the markedly greater thymic cell-dependence of the IgG compared with the IgM response. By that time, data from many laboratories was supporting the concept of B cell:T cell collaboration but the inability to distinguish between the two cell types in mature lymphocyte populations remained a key obstacle, and one that Roger and his Mill Hill colleagues then famously overcame.

It seemed logical to suppose that all lymphocytes had antigen-specific receptors on their surface, but the identity of such receptors remained in doubt. It was then that Roger and Martin Raff, working in separate laboratories within Mill Hill, simultaneously came up with the same result: the B cell surface receptor was indeed immunoglobulin. They used antisera to a mouse immunoglobulin preparation, raised in rabbits and labelled either with I125 (for autoradiographic detection) or fluorescein (for microscopic detection), to stain viable cell suspensions from different mouse lymphoid tissues. Both assays detected surface staining of roughly 40% spleen cells and 20% lymph node cells in the absence of any thymus cell staining. Published in a joint paper in Nature in 1970, this was the first direct evidence that B cells did indeed express immunoglobulin molecules on their surface. This was not only a key finding in its own right but one that also provided a means of distinguishing the two main lymphocyte subsets. Intriguingly, the fluorescence assays also showed that the staining subsequently capped to one pole of the B cell surface, a phenomenon that was further investigated in a second Taylor/Raff joint paper published in Nature New Biology in 1971. This clearly showed that ‘capping’ was an active process, requiring multivalent binding of the surface immunoglobulin, and was followed by internalisation of the cap components by pinocytosis. The work had major implications in at least two contexts; firstly in suggesting that receptormediated binding and internalisation of specific antigen were critical events in B cell activation, and secondly in demonstrating the fluid nature of cell membranes and the ability of molecules to redistribute across the surface. Interestingly, a separate Martin Raff paper that described the positive identification of T cells was not published by Nature and went instead to the BSI journal, Immunology (1970 19 637–50. PMID: 4097588).

By the time the second Nature paper appeared, Roger had been persuaded to move to a Readership in Immunology at the University of Bristol, heading up the newly formed MRC Immunobiology Group within the Department of Pathology. There he was able to continue his work on fundamental questions, particularly on the mechanisms underpinning B cell priming versus tolerance induction. Here he became especially interested in the use of covalent antibody–antigen complexes as a tool to manipulate the immune response; indeed he was the recipient of early translational research funding for this work to determine potential therapeutic applications. Perhaps more importantly, Roger’s move to Bristol allowed him to build a team of like-minded younger colleagues who blossomed under his leadership. Those colleagues recognised Roger as an exceptional scientist with a totally original mind and an innovator who retained his passion for working at the bench, often designing his own instrumentation for those experiments. Yet he remained approachable to all and was unfailingly generous with his time and with his advice to members of the group. Many new avenues of research were stimulated by such discussions but, like his former Mill Hill colleague Av Mitchison, Roger never asked for his name to be added to the resultant papers unless he had made a major contribution to the work.

Under Roger’s 20-year leadership, the MRC Group in Bristol became the centre of a wider immunological community built within the University and beyond. Many talented research students came through that environment and subsequently went on to successful academic careers. But the Group’s influence did not end there; Roger and his academic colleagues Chris Elson and Dougie Naysmith, were key contributors to the Department’s ground-breaking degree course in Cellular Pathology; this gave final year BSc students, and intercalators from medical and veterinary courses, the opportunity to spend a year in the lab, an introduction to research which many will never forget. Immunology at Bristol flourished under Roger’s intellectual leadership; to those of us who were there and came to know him well, Roger was the epitome of the ‘the scientist’s scientist’, serious in intent yet always insisting that the practice of research should be fun. He inspired a love of the immunology literature with a weekly journals club – in the summer given in his garden, he wearing nothing but a pair of baggy khaki shorts. His iconic VW Beetle was always ready to whisk colleagues away out of town for science retreats in the countryside. He took sabbaticals at centres of immunology excellence, Marseille LUMINY and the Weizmann Institute, each time returning full of new ideas and new friendships.

After retiring from Bristol, and with his three children now launched on their own life journeys, Roger went back to his roots, inheriting the idyllic family home near Albury that had been the site of his earliest amateur experiments. His interests had always been much broader than the day-to-day focus of his professional life, indeed his personality was more that of the artist/philosopher than of the artisan scientist. That was mirrored in his deep regard for John Crook, a Reader in Ethology in Bristol whose early research on primate behaviour led to significant work on human consciousness and thence to an advocacy of Zen Buddhist practice. It was that multifaceted understanding of our place in the world to which Roger aspired. This was most evident in his later writing and painting, in his continued scientific enquiries into phenomena that had no apparent natural explanation and, most of all, in his life-long fascination with the sheer wonder of existence.

Alan Rickinson and John Tite, in collaboration with Danny Altmann