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Murray [née Parker], Noreen Elizabethlocked

  • Jean Beggs

Noreen Elizabeth Murray (1935–2011)

by Godfrey Argent Studio, 1985

Murray [née Parker], Noreen Elizabeth (1935–2011), geneticist, was born on 26 February 1935 at Latrigg, Whalley Road, Read, near Burnley, Lancashire, the younger child of John Parker, headmaster, and his wife, Lilian Grace, née Sutcliffe. Her grandfathers began as weavers (tacklers) in the cotton industry. Her maternal grandfather, despite leaving school at twelve, remained a scholar: he learned languages, wrote poetry, and was a skilled draughtsman. Her paternal grandfather rose to become manager of a mill and her father was able to go to grammar school and training college. He became headmaster of the village school in Read (1930–40) and subsequently of a larger school in Bolton-le-Sands (1940–64).

Noreen's father was a strong disciplinarian and she and her brother had a strict but loving upbringing. He encouraged Noreen in gardening, which was the beginning of a lifelong love of plants. Her brother, Neil, was a keen naturalist (he later studied forestry at Edinburgh University) and he encouraged her to collect pressed flowers and birds' feathers. In her fifth form at school she studied physics and chemistry, but her brother introduced her to biology, teaching her about Mendel's laws and encouraging her to read biology books. Thus, at the age of fifteen, she changed from thinking of becoming a domestic science teacher to studying biology.

Noreen Parker attended primary school in Bolton-le-Sands (1940–45), then Lancaster Girls' Grammar School (1945–53). She was awarded a London intercollegiate scholarship and a state scholarship and went on to study botany at King's College, London. This was followed by research in microbial genetics under the supervision of David Catcheside, head of the (then new) department of microbiology at the University of Birmingham, for which she was awarded a PhD in 1959. For this she performed fine-structure analyses of genes of the methionine biosynthetic pathway of Neurospora crassa (a bread mould), discovering that recombination does not occur uniformly along genes but proceeds preferentially in one direction from recombination hotspots, a phenomenon referred to as polarized gene conversion.

In Birmingham, Noreen met her future husband, Kenneth (Ken) Murray (1930–2013), who was studying for a PhD in chemistry. In addition to their shared passion for laboratory work they enjoyed hill walking, camping, and climbing. They married in Bolton-le-Sands on 6 September 1958 and were later to become close scientific collaborators. After completing their PhDs, they took up postdoctoral positions at Stanford University, Noreen continuing her studies of Neurospora in David Perkins's laboratory. It was during this time that she first met Frank Stahl, who was studying the genetics of bacteriophage and was interested in her recombination work. In 1964 she and Ken returned to the UK, where she worked with Harold Whitehouse in the Botany School, Cambridge. When Stahl came on sabbatical to the Laboratory of Molecular Biology she spent time with him, learning to work with bacteria and bacteriophage, experience that would be very valuable later.

In 1968 Noreen and Ken Murray moved to the University of Edinburgh, where Noreen took up a position in Bill Hayes's Medical Research Council Unit of Molecular Genetics. She began studying host-controlled restriction (the ability of bacterial cells to ‘restrict’ foreign DNA) in Escherichia coli, using bacteriophage lambda. Ken Murray had been determining short DNA sequences at the ends of the lambda genome, and they combined their genetic and molecular skills to identify the DNA sequences that are cleaved by DNA restriction enzymes within the phage lambda genome. They were among the first to realize that the ability to cut DNA with restriction enzymes opened up the possibility of joining together different DNA fragments to produce recombinant molecules, and thereby to clone DNA sequences. Noreen used elegant genetic approaches to modify the lambda genome, reducing the number of restriction enzyme cleavage sites, allowing its use as a DNA cloning vector. Noreen, Ken, and their close colleague Bill Brammar used these modified bacteriophage to clone fragments of DNA from a variety of organisms.

During the 1970s and early 1980s Noreen Murray produced a series of increasingly sophisticated lambda cloning vectors and bacterial strains in which to grow them. Also, her clever use of the quiescent, lysogenic state of phage lambda facilitated the high-level production of proteins that may be toxic to the bacterium. This included T4 DNA ligase, polynucleotide kinase, and E. coli DNA polymerase, which were important for the new recombinant DNA technology.

In 1988 Noreen Murray was promoted to professor of molecular genetics at Edinburgh University, becoming an emeritus professor on retirement in 2001. She had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1982. Her many contributions to science were also honoured by fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1989), membership of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (1981), and honorary doctorates from the universities of Birmingham, Warwick, Lancaster, Sheffield, and Edinburgh, and from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. She was awarded the Gabor medal of the Royal Society, the AstraZeneca award of the Biochemical Society, the Nexxus award (jointly with her husband), and a royal medal from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and was made a CBE for services to science in 2002. Her husband was knighted in 1993 but she declined to use the title Lady Murray. She served on many committees, including the executive advisory board of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the council of the Royal Society, and the Cabinet Office science and technology honours committee, and as vice-president of the Royal Society and president of the Genetical Society of Great Britain. She was also a trustee of the Darwin Trust of Edinburgh, a charitable organization founded by her and Ken Murray to support research in the natural sciences.

Noreen Murray's achievements came at a time when it was not always easy for women to make a career in science, and it is a measure of her ability and hard work that she reached the very top of her profession. Despite her eminence as a scientist she was always very unassuming and quietly spoken, but also strong minded and extremely determined. Her strength of character showed clearly during her illness from motor neurone disease, which caused a very rapid deterioration in her health over a period of about nine months. She demonstrated great courage, determination, and dignity during this very difficult time, seeming more concerned about others than about herself. She died at the Fairmile Marie Curie Centre in Edinburgh on 12 May 2011. Her husband died less than two years later. They had no children.


  • The Scotsman (25 May 2011)
  • The Independent (1 June 2011)
  • J. Beggs and D. Finnegan, ‘Noreen Elizabeth Murray’, Royal Society of Edinburgh website,, 15 July 2014
  • Microbiology Today, 38/3 (Aug 2011), 202–3
  • WW (2011)
  • personal knowledge (2015)
  • private information (2015)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • Godfrey Argent Studio, photograph, 1985, RS [see illus.]
  • F. Carlisle, double portrait, oils, 2009 (with Sir Kenneth Murray), U. Edin., King's Buildings
  • portrait, Chicheley Hall, Buckinghamshire