A lasting legacy in Jamaica

Babies from the sickle cell cohort and their mothers (Copyright: Graham Serjeant*)

Babies from the sickle cell cohort and their mothers (Copyright: Graham Serjeant*)

The MRC has two research units in The Gambia and Uganda but we haven’t made a habit of setting up units around the globe. So when External Communications Officer Stacy-Ann Ashley found out about our former units in Jamaica, she decided to take a look at its work, from malnutrition research to a sickle cell study that is still producing results today.

Last year the MRC turned 100, and with such a long history, I often find myself saying “I never knew that”. One such moment was when I found out that the MRC had units in Jamaica between 1958 and 1999. As a Jamaican, I was intrigued. So I did a little digging.

The first MRC unit in Jamaica focused on tropical metabolism. It opened in 1958 with laboratories and a 16-bed ward with the aim of researching the metabolic and physiological mechanisms of severe acute malnutrition.

The unit Director, Professor (later Sir) John Waterlow, had first arrived in Jamaica in 1945 when the British Colonial Office asked him to research the high death rate of children under five years old on the island, as well as in Guyana and Trinidad.

After completing this work he realised that there was much more work to be done, so he approached the MRC to fund a new Tropical Metabolism Research Unit (TMRU). During the unit’s 12 years of research, and with support from Jamaica’s Ministry of Health, the child death rate from malnutrition dropped from 35 to five per cent. Before Waterlow’s retirement and the unit’s associated closure in 1970 he also established a Masters course in Human Nutrition at the University of the West Indies (UWI), where the unit was based. The MRC then transferred all of the unit’s research data to the university so they could build on the research.

Once TMRU had become part of the university it began to focus on the new epidemic of obesity and chronic disease in the Caribbean. However, it maintained its research in malnutrition as this was still a major cause of child death around the world.

TMRU wasn’t the only MRC-funded unit in Jamaica. During the 1960s the Epidemiological Research Unit opened to study diseases prevalent in the island’s population. The unit was supported by Archie Cochrane, Director of the MRC Pneumoconiosis Research Unit in Wales and was directed by his colleague, William (Bill) Miall. The units worked closely together to study the population differences in heart disease, blood pressure, pulmonary tuberculosis, arthritis and diabetes between the populations of Wales and Jamaica. By the time Miall returned to the UK in 1971 he had established a lasting legacy of epidemiological rigour in the Caribbean.

Again, the director’s departure led to the unit’s closure, and the building was renamed in 1973 to MRC Laboratories and refocused to research sickle cell disease. This new unit was directed by Professor Graham Serjeant who helped to develop the Jamaica Sickle Cell Cohort Study — the world’s first extensive newborn screening for sickle cell disease. The study began in 1973 at the island’s Victoria Jubilee Hospital and ended on 28 December 1981 — screening 100,000 babies in that time. The unit used the cohort to help map disease progression from birth, and improved care for those with the disease.

Following Professor Serjeant’s retirement in 1999, the MRC also transferred this unit and all its academic value to UWI. The decision to transfer units rather than closing them completely meant the university was able to combine both MRC units on October 1 1999 to form the current Tropical Medicine Research Institute (TMRI).

TMRI has since gone on to create an additional research unit in Barbados which focuses on chronic diseases. Today, those with sickle cell who were part of the cohort study are still followed up by scientists at TMRI’s Sickle Cell Unit. Additional core funding from the MRC has also helped researchers in Jamaica to provide advice to other countries on developing sickle cell treatments.

Professor Serjeant is also helping to continue the MRC’s research as the Chairman of the charity Sickle Cell Trust (Jamaica). He helped to establish the charity in 1986 and the dedicated Sickle Cell Clinic which opened in 1988. The Education Centre for Sickle Cell Disease opened in 1994 supported by funding from charity, and works as an outreach and training facility.

Investing in the medical research infrastructure in Jamaica has enabled the MRC’s impact to outlive its branded units. Like with many of the MRC’s research achievements that took place over the past century, they are still being built on by scientists today.

Stacy-Ann Ashley

With thanks to Professor Terrence Forrester, Chief Scientist of Solutions for Developing Countries at the University of the West Indies and Founding Director of TMRI and Professor Graham Serjeant, Chairman on the Sickle Cell Trust (Jamaica).

MRC Centenary Awards

To find out about other Centenary Award holders visit our blog at: www.insight.mrc.ac.uk.

To mark a century of achievement, the MRC awarded £14.2m in MRC Centenary Awards to allow some of our best and brightest early career researchers to accelerate their research and transform their career development. The awards enabled successful applicants to build on their existing MRC-funded research or explore new areas of medical science. We asked five of these researchers how the awards benefited their careers.

Dr Jonathan Hiorns

Jonathon-Hiorns_Centenary-Award-Holder_Copyright-Jonathon-HiornsImage: Profile photo © Dr Jonathan Hiorns

Career in brief

  • MMath in Mathematics
  • MRC PhD student, University of Nottingham

“The difficulty with asthma treatment is that the cause of breathing problems varies between different people, and there isn’t any medication that is effective in all cases. Through a 12-week visit to the Laboratory of Professor J. Fredberg at Harvard School of Public Health, I developed imaging techniques to analyse how asthma affects the airways, and made comparisons between the experimental data and my mathematical models.”

What’s next?

The award helped strengthen collaborations and research links between Nottingham and Harvard. Jonathan is planning to write a paper about how he used the novel imaging techniques for data analysis. Following the award, he has accepted a role at the University of Manchester to work on AirPROM, an EU-funded project that is bringing together clinical findings and computational modelling, with the aim of building multi-scale computational models of the lung to characterise asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  

Read more about AirPROM at: mrc.io/airprom

Dr Alan Groves

AlanGroves_Centenary-Award-holder_Copyright-Weill-Cornell-Medical-CollegeProfile photo: Image credit: © Weill Cornell Medical College

Career in brief

  • BSc in Physiology
  • Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MB ChB)
  • Specialist training in Neonatal Medicine
  • Senior Lecturer, Imperial College London
  • MRC Clinician Scientist, Imperial College and King’s College London

“The award enabled my centre to become the first in Europe to assess heart function in premature newborn infants via non-invasive, trend-monitoring software, to predict infection, allow early treatment and reduce further complications. The software calculates variability in heart rate from routinely-used equipment in the neonatal intensive care environment; low variability is associated with early infection, resulting in a high-risk score.

“I studied a small group of infants in the neonatal unit at King’s College over a five month period, looking for clinical signs of sepsis and assessing whether ‘spikes’ in heart rate risk score can reliably predict infection. I implemented new IT and statistical approaches into my research, in order to analyse the neonatal population.”

What’s next?

The award has facilitated new international collaborations between researchers at King’s College and bioengineers in the UK, with neonatologists and cardiologists in Virginia and New York in the USA. Alan has since taken up a post as an Assistant Professor at Cornell University in the USA. He plans to continue his research into improving assessment and care of premature newborn infants.


Dr Claire Haworth and Dr Oliver Davis

DrClaire_DrOliverProfile photos: Image credit: © Laura Mtungwazi

Careers in brief

Dr Claire Haworth:

  • BA in Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford
  • MSc and PhD MRC Studentship, MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, King’s College London
  • Interdisciplinary Postdoctoral Fellowship, MRC/ESRC
  • Research Fellowship, British Academy
  • Associate Professor, University of Warwick

Dr Oliver Davis:

  • BA in Natural Sciences, University of Cambridge
  • MSc and PhD MRC Studentship, MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, King’s College London
  • Sir Henry Wellcome Fellowship, Wellcome Trust
  • Senior Research Fellow, University College London

“Our study is one of the first to track behaviour and mental health outcomes over time, in an online social network. Twitter provides a time-sensitive window into an individual’s emotional reaction to the world, but little is currently known about the impact social support on Twitter can have on mental health and wellbeing.  Accessing information on 2,500 twins in the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), an MRC cohort established in 1994, enabled us to use twin data as a control for genetic influence.

“We collected and analysed text and linguistics in over three million tweets, using an automated sentiment processer, to record twins’ emotional responses to local, national and international life events, in real time. The award enabled us to collect new, independent data on a well-characterised sample.”

What’s next?

Claire has since secured an Associate Professorship at the University of Warwick; she continues to use text analysis to understand wellbeing. Oliver has been appointed Senior Research Fellow at UCL Genetics Institute; he is using big data to understand genomes in developmental and environmental contexts.

To find out more about their research, follow them and TEDS on Twitter: @cmahaworth, @oligotweet and @TedsProject

Dr Shankar Varadarajan


Profile photo: Image credit: © Dr Shankar Varadarajan

Career in brief 

  • BSc in Pharmacy, The Tamil Nadu Dr. M.G.R. Medical University, Chennai, India
  • ME in Biotechnology, Birla Institute of Technology and Sciences, Pilani, India
  • PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology, University of Texas at Austin, USA
  • Career Development Fellowship, MRC Toxicology Unit, Leicester, UK
  • Tenure-Track Fellowship (leading to Lectureship), University of Liverpool, UK

“During my Career Development Fellowship I evaluated the potency of several BCL-2 family antagonists for use in cancer chemotherapy. As part of the award, I received training on live-cell imaging using spinning disk confocal microscopy in Professor Tomas Kirchhausen’s laboratory at Harvard Medical School. This training helped me in contributing towards a publication in Molecular Biology of the Cell (Lu et al 2013).

“During the award, with the encouragement of Professor Kirchhausen, I changed my research direction to work on crosstalk mechanisms between endoplasmic reticulum and mitochondria, as well as other organelles found in the cell. During my stay at Harvard, I established collaborations with other scientists in Harvard and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, which helped me publish some articles in Cell Death and Differentiation and Neoplasia (Varadarajan et al 2013).”

What’s next?

Shankar was recently recruited on a Tenure-Track Fellowship at the Institute of Translational Medicine, University of Liverpool. He aims to extend his research into BCL-2 family antagonists and apoptosis, as well as understanding other cellular stress mechanisms in disease pathology. He is currently in the process of establishing his own research group at the University of Liverpool.

Celebrating a century of international collaboration

Medical research benefits people worldwide, and science is an increasingly global endeavour. But how much do we know about how scientists work together across countries? Here we look at some of the key international collaborations that MRC scientists have been involved in the past 100 years, from the 1940s trial of streptomycin for tuberculosis to testing a smartphone app that tests eye health in Kenya.

[Video link for access]

The 12 days of the MRC Centenary

2013 has been a big year for the MRC, marking 100 years since our founding committee met for the first time to plan the spending of public money on medical research. We’ve achieved much since then, and throughout the year we celebrated the past, present and future of the MRC. Here Centenary coordinator Adrian Penrose provides a snapshot of highlights from our Centenary year, shoehorned into a familiar format …

Twelve groups celebrating

We’ve held 12 events this year in the UK celebrating our Centenary with MRC staff and our wider community. The MRC is a large organisation, funding and carrying out such a range of research, so we wanted to get people together to share their knowledge. Activities included the broadcast of films about past and present MRC research at the London event, hands-on fun activities in Edinburgh, a Centenary Quiz and photography competition in Cambridge, and a special sciSCREEN-style screening and discussion of The Nightmare Before Christmas in Cardiff.

Eleven scientists writing

We shortlisted 11 MRC-funded early-career researchers for this year’s Max Perutz Science Writing Award held at the Science Museum in London. Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts MP, presented the £100 Centenary Prize to Helen Keyworth for her article Running Away from Addiction, while Peter Kilbride won the Centenary challenge of describing where his research area would be in 100 years.

Ten decades discovering

We created an interactive digital timeline of some of the most important of these discoveries, from the discovery in 1916 that rickets is caused by a lack of vitamin D to the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for three researchers who had all carried out research at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

Nine parliamentarians polling

Nine members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords were among the more than 50 figures in the public eye who responded to our Centenary Poll asking what were the most important medical advances from the past 100 years and what might be the most important discoveries in the next 100. Stephen Fry contributed, “When you think of the deaths by septicaemia and other infections I cannot think of any other more powerfully effective medical advance than antibiotics. Of course, whether they’ll continue to be as instrumental in the saving of lives over the next 100 years is a moot point as overuse and bacillus mutation continue apace.”

Eight films-a-showing

When an organisation has been around for 100 years, it’s interesting to look at how early work is being continued today. We made seven short films doing exactly this, with topics covered including the development of penicillin as a drug and how MRC researchers are trying to combat antibiotic resistance today. A film looking at examples of MRC researchers getting involved in collaboration across countries was shown at an event celebrating 100 years of international collaboration in December.

The Life Game at the Science Museum (Image copyright: Science Museum*)

The Life Game at the Science Museum (Image copyright: Science Museum*)

Seven centres gaming**

MRC Centenary Open Week was kicked off with a mini Centenary Festival, the Life Game, held at the Science Museum in London, with games manned by seven MRC research establishments. Around 50 events took place around the UK during Open Week and thousands of visitors enjoyed finding out about MRC science – many for the first time. The open day at the Research Complex at Harwell, for example, offered students and members of the public tours of the complex and opportunities to take part in scientific demonstrations. One visitor commented, “It’s interesting to see how what we learn now will be useful later on and how it is applied practically. The people were really nice too!”

Six scientists speaking

In May the Foundation for Science and Technology organised a one-off debate to celebrate the MRC Centenary. The six panellists discussed what the MRC’s research priorities should be for the next 25 years.

Five media broadcasts

The Centenary year got underway with three short BBC TV films focusing on tuberculosis, flu, and the potential of stem cell therapies. BBC 5 Live featured a two-hour live broadcast featuring our Chief Executive John Savill and researchers past and present In a bumper media year, the MRC Centenary was also the main feature of Quentin Cooper’s last ever episode of BBC Radio 4’s Material World which was aired on the MRC’s official birthday, 20 June. King’s College’s ‘Photo 51’ exhibit, which formed part of their MRC Centenary events, was covered by BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind. BBC Radio 4’s Today programme also mentioned the Centenary Poll in coverage on antibiotic resistance.

The wiki edit-a-thon at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research (Image credit: Katie Chan)

The wiki edit-a-thon at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research (Image credit: Katie Chan)

Four wiki edit-a-thons

We held four Wikipedia edit-a-thon events throughout the year. These aim to improve Wikipedia entries for female MRC-affiliated scientists and to create articles for those who have been forgotten. We produced an audio slideshow from the first event held at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research in July.

Three science labs

Strictly Science: keeping one step ahead’ was a creative and popular free interactive exhibition exploring the past, present and future of the MRC in three distinct sections. It was staged at Imperial College London in April. In the run up to the exhibition, the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre launched a competition for primary schools to create artwork. They also produced Heroes of Health, an accompanying comic book aiming to help schools learn about the MRC’s past.

Two experiments

Our public engagement programme broke new ground for us this year, with two Medical Research Live projects launched in conjunction with the Medical Research Foundation ― Worm Watch Lab and a Century of Amplified Music, which will run into 2014.

And the Queen opening the LMB

The Queen looks down a microscope at the MRC LMB

The Queen looks down a microscope at the MRC LMB

May saw the new MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology building opened officially by Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh. A local school choir welcomed the Queen into the building and the feedback that our Chief Executive John Savill received suggests that they enjoyed the day.

Adrian Penrose


*This image has not been released under our Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported Licence.

** It’s been pointed out to us that there were actually nine MRC centres in the game, but it’d ruin our Christmas fun to change it…

We need your ears

Tony Colman (Image copyright: Hospital Records*)

Tony Colman (Image copyright: Hospital Records*)

We know that exposure to loud noise can lead to hearing loss, with working in noisy environments long known as a culprit. But what effect has loud music had on the population’s hearing? Today we’re launching a mass participation study to see how our listening past affects our hearing present. Here Tony Colman, drum & bass DJ and co-founder of the Hospital Records label, tells us how exposure to loud music has affected his hearing ― and why you should take part in our online experiment so scientists can find out more.

How long have you been DJing for?

I’ve only been DJing for 17 years — before that I was playing guitar in several bands. I’ve been making music in the studio for 30 years.

What do you estimate your exposure to loud music to be?

It totally varies day to day. Many days nothing at all — at gigs, a lot — but I stuff my ears with silicone earplugs when I’m not playing myself.

Tell us about when you first realised you had tinnitus.

It was after we did a Hospital Records album launch at a drum & bass night called Movement at Bar Rumba in Piccadilly Circus. I remember thinking “what’s that ringing sound?”, and then I knew what it was. The system on that night was stupidly loud and I remember almost feeling pain in my ears.

Is tinnitus something you wished you’d been aware of earlier?

Yes and no. Yes, because I would have taken precautions much earlier, but no, because it may have made me decide to do something else, and I’m glad I didn’t!

Is tinnitus common among your peers?

It is very common. Not just in DJs but in ravers too.

How do you deal with having tinnitus?

I try to use it to my advantage, and to be positive about it. I only have it in my left ear, which is almost totally deaf in the mid–high frequency range. That has its uses when you’re trying to sleep in a noisy hotel — I just sleep on my right side. Also I taught myself to find the tinnitus itself soothing and reassuring, and believe it or not, that works.

How do you protect yourself from any further damage now?

As I said, I go for almost total block-out when I’m not working. I have moulded earplugs, but the problem with those for DJs is that you end up turning the headphones up to compensate. Whenever I DJ after someone who is wearing ear plugs, they always crank the volume right up — which negates the 20 decibel reduction in their earplugs anyway.

Why do you think research into hearing and loud music is important?

It’s very important. I’m lucky enough to have been able to be positive about my hearing damage, but for many people hearing constant white noise, bells and whistles can be soul destroying.

Tony Colman

Take the test now.

Our online experiment is open to everyone: younger or older in age, better or worse in hearing and with a wide variety of musical experiences and hearing abilities. It involves a questionnaire about your history of listening to loud music – either at gigs or in clubs, or using portable audio devices. You will also be asked to do a short listening experiment, which gives a measurement of your ability to identify words in a background of noise. This is a simple measure of someone’s hearing and is not a substitute for a proper hearing test. Please contact your GP if you have concerns about your hearing.  

The experiment was produced by hearing researchers from the MRC Institute of Hearing Research and the National Institute of Health Research’s Nottingham Hearing Biomedical Research Unit. The project is part of our Centenary programme of events and is supported by the Medical Research Foundation.

*The image used in this article has not been released under our Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported Licence.

Centenary correspondence

As we approach the end of our Centenary year we’re starting to look back at all the ways in which we marked turning 100. One of our Centenary highlights was the official opening of the new MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology building by Her Majesty the Queen. Our Chief Executive John Savill was particularly pleased to receive this feedback from a pupil at Great and Little Shelford Primary School, whose choir sang to welcome the Queen to the building. We hope she remembers “the Queen’s lovely feathery hat and missing a bit of school” for a long time to come.

We’re also particularly fond of these photographs comparing both times the Queen has opened the LMB. And for more Centenary-based singing, you can watch the MRC Toxicology Unit’s specially composed song performed by local schoolchildren and volunteers.

Last of the ‘lab-boys’

Len Ward's colleague Vic Wright in the NIMR chemistry lab in 1934. Len had to remove and clean all these bottles once a week (please see copyright disclaimer below.)

Len Ward’s colleague Vic Wright in the NIMR chemistry lab in 1934. Len had to remove and clean all these bottles once a week (please see copyright disclaimer below.)

The vital work of laboratory technicians is often missing from accounts of modern medical research. Medical historian Professor Tilli Tansey studied practices at the MRC’s National Institute of Medical Research to explore changing attitudes to lab technicians over the past century.

The National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) was established in Hampstead in 1919. Initially, four departments were formed: Applied Physiology; Bacteriology; Biochemistry & Pharmacology; and Statistics. Each departmental head employed a lab assistant, and negotiated directly with the MRC about their technician’s salary and conditions. However by 1920, with nine scientists and approximately 15 assistants (including technical, animal house and maintenance staff) this system became unworkable. Consequently, formal pay and pension scales for all staff were created and a limited number of higher ‘A’ technical grades.

Restricted career progression

Many who later became senior technical staff at the NIMR started as ‘lab-boys’. In 1928, at the age of 14, Len Ward, who worked at the NIMR until 1976, began work in the animal house. In an interview in 1994 he described how he looked after rabbits and chickens, prepared their feed and cleaned out the cages. Being so small he had to stand on an upturned orange box to be able to reach the top racks: “[I did] everything. I was the lab boy. I held the animals when they wanted animals injected, I made up any solutions they wanted, I helped to make apparatus that was required, I did almost everything for them. All the services and things that were there. And then in my spare time, I used to dust the lab, every morning, the lab had to be dusted every morning. And once a week all the shelves had to be cleared and bottles taken off.”

Len Ward (1913-2007) worked at the NIMR from 1928 to 1976.

Len Ward (1913-2007) worked at the NIMR from 1928 to 1976.

The limited number of ‘A’ positions caused increasing resentment. Staff could be stuck at the same point on the salary scale for many years effectively waiting for dead men’s shoes for promotion into the restricted technical ‘A’ grade.

From the Royal Navy to HMS MRC

The contingencies of the Second World War (WW2) wrought many changes. Technicians called up to serve in specialist technical capacities at home and overseas recognised that they had valued skills and experience; those who remained at the NIMR also realised their value. Den Busby recalls how his boss at the NIMR wanted him back in London while he was serving in the Royal Navy in 1944: “Sir Christopher Andrewes applied to the Navy for me to be released, you see, which they wouldn’t do. So they seconded me to the MRC. So I received a draft chit to ‘HMS MRC’, with Andrewes as my Commanding Officer.”

Women began to enter the labs in larger numbers to replace the missing men and communal duties, such as fire-watching and sandbagging the institute, helped break down social distinctions between technicians and scientific staff. Resentment about the ‘A’ posts was temporarily resolved in 1944 with the help of the Association of Scientific Workers (AScW) which proposed an intermediate A/B grade. But there was still discontent about working conditions, including hours of work and the necessity to ‘sign in’ by 9am every morning, irrespective of how late work had been finished the night before.

Equality develops

Sandbagging the NIMR during WW2 helped break down social distinctions between staff (please see copyright disclaimer below.)

Sandbagging the NIMR during WW2 helped break down social distinctions between staff (please see copyright disclaimer below.)

The coming of the NHS brought some major changes. Medically-qualified NIMR research staff were given automatic parity with the better-paid NHS clinical staff. The AScW successfully campaigned to achieve comparability with NHS staff for non-medically qualified and technical staff, in late 1950.

The expansion of the NIMR into a new building at Mill Hill, and the increase in numbers of technicians, prompted other contentious issues to be addressed. In the past, technical staff had been made to wear brown lab coats while scientific staff donned white coats. Now all staff were permitted to wear white lab coats, and technicians were allowed to have their names as authors on scientific papers.

Time off was approved for technicians to attend career-developing training courses and the signing-in book was abolished. These changes all contributed to the growing ‘professionalisation’ of laboratory technicians — and the concept of the ‘lab boy’ was dispelled for good.

Tilli Tansey

This article was first published in the Autumn 2013 issue of Network.

For a modern-day perspective on being a technician, take a look at our Q&A with an animal technician at MRC Harwell.

The copyright for the sandbagging and lab images from the NIMR is unknown. Every effort has been made to obtain permission from copyright holders to reproduce this material. Owing to the age of this content, and given the resources available to us, this hasn’t always been possible or practicable. We have acted in good faith at all times and any queries relating to the copyright of this content should be referred to corporate@headoffice.mrc.ac.uk 

Behind the picture: Archie Cochrane and the Welsh coal miners

As The Cochrane Collaboration celebrates its 20th Anniversary, Isabel Baker delves into the MRC archive to look back on its pioneering namesake, Professor Archibald Leman Cochrane, and the story of this photograph, taken during his ambitious project to X-ray the entire population of a Welsh mining valley.

The MRC Pneumoconiosis Research Unit team at the Rock Colliery in 1953, Archie is seated far left. (Image copyright: The Fellowship of Postgraduate Medicine)

The MRC Pneumoconiosis Research Unit team at the Rock Colliery in 1953, Archie is seated far left. (Image copyright: The Fellowship of Postgraduate Medicine)

This photograph, taken at the Rock Colliery in Wales in 1953, is of the MRC Pneumoconiosis Research Unit X-raying team. The team look pretty happy considering their gruelling schedule, working long unsociable hours in a marquee and X-ray van set up at the pithead.

Between 1950 and 1953 the PRU team X-rayed all of the coal miners and ex-miners in the Rhondda Fach deep coal mining valley in South Wales — no small undertaking given that the mining population of the valley was more than 6,000. Another team, from the Welsh Regional Hospital Board, X-rayed the women, children of school age, and non-mining men.

The unit was based at Llandough Hospital in Penarth in South Wales, and was set up in 1945 to research the problem of coal workers’ ‘black lung’, or pneumoconiosis, which caused more than 22,000 British miners to leave work between 1931 and 1948.

Archie (seated far left in the photo) joined the unit in 1949 with a strong interest in respiratory diseases, especially tuberculosis, and big plans in mind. It had been suggested that a complication of pneumoconiosis called progressive massive fibrosis might be tuberculosis modified by dust, so he set out to identify TB by X-ray and reduce cases in the valley to see what effect this would have on rates of progressive massive fibrosis.

The X-ray measurements were combined with sputum measurements (mucus from the lower airway) from each person, to identify as many cases of tuberculosis as possible, and admit them to hospital.

The team’s ‘Rock Now X-Raying’ board was just one of their ways to encourage the miners to be X-rayed, though according to the field team, the offer of transport to the clinic in Archie’s Jaguar was a powerful persuasion. They also promoted the survey via radio, television, lectures and posters. And when half the names were crossed off the lists, members of the team went to visit everyone who hadn’t been X-rayed.

Despite this challenging proposition, with MRC funding Archie managed to obtain a remarkable 98 per cent cooperation rate in miners, as well as 95 per cent of the whole Rhondda population, in 1950-51. The introduction of antibiotics around 1945 meant that tuberculosis rates reduced dramatically, and the outcome of the survey was never clear. Archie then concentrated his meticulous approach on making measurable estimates of the relationship between dust exposure and pneumoconiosis.

The idea of accumulating and analysing evidence may seem obvious to us now. But it hadn’t always been obvious to the medical profession. Archie proposed this radical new idea — and showed that he was prepared to put the work in to support it.

Isabel Baker

The Cochrane Collaboration is a not-for-profit organisation that gathers the best available scientific evidence about interventions and shares the findings with practitioners, governments and the public. It was established in 1993, inspired by Archie’s call for medicine to be evidence-based. Today, the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register has produced more than 5,000 systematic reviews and nearly 28,000 people in 120 countries participate in this work. You can watch a video about 20 years of the Cochrane on YouTube.

Further reading

Pulmonary Tuberculosis in the Rhondda Fach – BMJ, 1952

Chronic Pulmonary Disease in South Wales Coal Mines: An Eye-Witness Account of the MRC Surveys (1937-1942) – The Society for the Social History of Medicine (1998)

Public health in Wales (1800-2000)


Max Perutz Award


The MRC Max Perutz Science Writing Award ceremony  took place at the Science Museum on Wednesday 25 September. The award is now in its 16th year and asks MRC-funded researchers to communicate their work to a wider audience by explaining why their research matters in less than 800 words.

As part of our Centenary celebrations two additional categories were included in this year’s competition – the Centenary Challenge and Centenary Prize.

The Challenge asked researchers to write just 100 words on the future of their research area. The shortlisting judges chose to award the £500 prize to Peter Kilbride from University College London, for his piece 2071 – My 80th Birthday Present! The award was presented by Professor Robin Perutz, the son of the late Max Perutz, following his speech on some of the MRC’s and his father’s achievements.  

Robin commented that the judges felt that the piece was a deserving winner for its creativity and individuality.


Image: Professor Robin Perutz with Max Perutz Award Centenary Challenge winner, Peter Kilbride.

“What might my future children and grandchildren get me for my 80th birthday? No doubt I’ll have told them (slightly exaggerated) stories about my contribution to cryopreservation. I expect that I’d enjoy a good moan about my old creaking body. Maybe they’ll have put these things together and bought me a new hip — lab grown and frozen before my special day. Or perhaps a new set of lungs, so I can run without getting out of breath. No matter what they buy me, failing bodies — of the young or old — will no longer be the terror they are today.”2071 – My 80th Birthday Present!

Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts MP, presented the £100 Centenary Prize to Helen Keyworth for her article Running Away from Addiction. The article gave an insight into Helen’s research at the University of Surrey into the difficulties faced when patients try to quit smoking and the effects of exercise on nicotine withdrawal.


Universities and Science Minister David Willetts with Max Perutz Award Centenary Prize winner, Helen Keyworth.

Titles and headlines are notoriously difficult to write as the author must not only capture the readers’ attention and entice them to read on, but it must also be a true reflection of the article. David Willetts commented that Helen could get a job writing newspaper headlines.

Writing women: a Wikipedia edit-a-thon

Last week, the MRC National Institute for Medical Research hosted the first of our Wikipedia edit-a-thons aiming to raise the profile of women in science. More than 20 editors took part, creating and improving the Wikipedia articles for female scientists from the pioneering geneticist Florence Margaret Durham to modern-day researchers such as Uta Frith. Watch the audio slideshow below for a flavour of the event.

(Photos courtesy of Katie Chan (Wikimedia UK) and the MRC National Institute for Medical Research. Image credit for Uta Frith: Anne-Katrin Purkiss, Wellcome Images.)