Category Archives: Medical

Professor George Gow Brownlee’s lab notebooks now available

George Gow Brownlee (photograph from the Royal Society)

George Gow Brownlee (photograph from the Royal Society)

The archive of Professor George Gow Brownlee, FMedSci, FRS, is now available online. Professor Brownlee was born in 1942 and took his degree and then a PhD at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, studying under double Nobel Laureate Fred Sanger at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (in 2014 he published a biography of Sanger). He worked for the Medical Research Council in Cambridge from 1966 until 1980 and then came to Oxford as a Fellow of Lincoln College and the first E.P. Abraham Professor of Chemical Pathology at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, a chair he held until retirement in 2008.

Professor Brownlee’s research interests were in molecular biology and he and his group made significant discoveries in sequencing RNA and DNA during the early days of that field of research. In 1977, his group discovered the existence of pseudogenes – abnormal, mutated genes – which are now known to be ubiquitous in the genome of all organisms. After 1980, Brownlee became more involved in applied medical problems, and managed to isolate the clotting factor IX gene (also known as Christmas factor), which is present in people with haemophilia B. This led to improved treatment for people with the disease. He went on to work on gene regulation in influenza. In 1999 he and Ervin Fodor, whose contributions feature heavily in this archive, were able to isolate recombinant influenza virus, which led to improved vaccines for children.

These lab notebooks, which span most of Professor Brownlee’s career, form a rich scientific record that interestingly covers failed experiments as well as the experiments that led to major discoveries. And as a bonus, the catalogue is based on Professor Brownlee’s own descriptions of the notebooks, so it offers a level of detail that couldn’t be replicated by anybody else. The archive is likely to be of interest to scientists in the field as well as medical historians.

Now available: Catalogue of the Archive of Sir James Gowans

The Archive of the immunologist Sir James Gowans  (b.1924) is now available (online catalogue).

James Learmonth ‘Jim’ Gowans, after obtaining his medical degree from King’s College Hospital in 1947, came to Oxford on a Medical Research Council Studentship to work under Howard Florey, and was awarded a DPhil in 1953.

During the 1950s he did pioneering work on the life cycle of the lymphocyte, establishing that the small lymphocyte continuously recirculated from the blood to the lymph and back again, and that this cell was at the centre of immunological responses.
In 1962 he became Henry Dale Research Professor of the Royal Society at the Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford, and from 1963 he was also Director of the Medical Research Council’s Cellular Immunology Research Unit at the Dunn School.

In 1977 Gowans left his research career to become the Secretary of the Medical Research Council and during 10 years in office oversaw, or was involved with, a number of major projects and initiatives, notably the establishment of Celltech as a company to develop biotechnology research into commercial opportunities, folic acid trials to prevent the development of neural tube defects, the Rothschild proposals for the reorganisation of medical research funding in the UK, the setup of the Voluntary Licensing Authority for Human in-vitro Fertilization and Embryology, and MRC AIDS Directed Programme.
From 1989-1993 Gowans was the Secretary-General of the Human Frontier Science Program, Strasbourg.

Alongside his posts at the Medical Research Council and the Human Frontier Science Program, and after his retirement, Gowans was a consultant and advisor, non-executive director or trustee for a number of companies, organisations and charities, including the World Health Organization Programme on AIDS, 3i – Investment in Industries, the Tavistock Trust, the Charing Cross Sunley Research Centre, Synaptica, EICOS – European Initiative for Communicators of Science, St. Christopher’s Hospice, General Motors Cancer Research Foundation.
Amongst many awards he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1963, and knighted in 1982.

The archive mainly comprises professional and scientific correspondence, and related papers such as briefing papers and reports, relating to all stages of Gowans’s career, as well as general (personal) correspondence, papers relating to awards, honours and memberships, conferences and visits, publications, and selected photographs.

The material was catalogued with the generous support of Sir James Gowans.

War, Health and Humanitarianism

How can we define humanitarianism?

What motivates humanitarian actors like Oxfam and the Red Cross?

How have relief and development organizations competed and collaborated to mitigate suffering from conflicts?

Is political neutrality feasible or necessary?

These and other questions will be addressed in the symposium, ‘War, Health and Humanitarianism’ on 16 June in the Weston Library Lecture Theatre, which brings together historians studying conflicts from the medieval period to the present day. Speakers will include Dr. Rosemary Wall, Bodleian Library Sassoon Visiting Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Global History at the University of Hull, whose current research focuses on conflict in Cyprus, Vietnam and Nigeria in the 20th century and British and French humanitarian responses.

For further information and to register see:

http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/222665/War-Health-and-Humanitarianism_Programme.pdf

Unloading dried milk

Unloading dried milk for the starving people of Biafra at Fernando Po during the Nigerian Civil War, July 1968
MS. Oxfam COM/5/1/51
Credit: Duncan Kirkpatrick / Oxfam

Papers of Margaret Pickles now available

The catalogue of a small collection of the papers of a twentieth-century female doctor is now available online, released as part of the Wellcome-Trust funded 75 Years of Penicillin in People project.

Margaret Pickles, known as Peggy, came to the University of Oxford to study botany but switched to physiology, earning her bachelor’s degree at Somerville College in 1936. After winning a competitive examination she studied for the next three years at the University College Hospital Medical School in London. She qualified as a doctor in 1939 and worked at the Bearsted Maternity Hospital and the Royal East Sussex Hospital in Hastings, returning to Oxford in 1941 to work at the Radcliffe Infirmary as the Nuffield Graduate Assistant in Pathology. She completed her doctorate (D.M.) at Somerville in 1947, which was published as Haemolytic disease of the newborn in 1949 and continued to work as a clinical pathologist and immunologist.

In 1950, aged 36, she married Alastair Robb-Smith, a distinguished pathologist who had been appointed Nuffield Reader in Pathology and head of pathology at Oxford’s clinical school (now the Nuffield Department of Medicine) in 1937, at the age of 29.

Her interests extended beyond medicine. In 1960 she published The Birds of Blenheim Park with the Oxford Ornithological Society. She also continued her botanical studies, breeding daffodils at her married home, Thomas Chaucer’s House in Woodstock.

The collection comprises mainly her degree certificates and family photographs, and offers a glimpse into the life of a multi-talented female scientist working at a time when women were generally discouraged from professional work.

Gwyn Macfarlane’s research on Alexander Fleming is now available

(Robert) Gwyn Macfarlane [by Jmcperth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons]

(Robert) Gwyn Macfarlane [by Jmcperth (own work), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

The catalogue of a small archive of the working papers of Gwyn Macfarlane (1907-1987), haematologist and biographer, is now available online, released as part of the Wellcome-Trust funded 75 Years of Penicillin in People project.

Macfarlane compiled these papers while researching his book Alexander Fleming, the Man and the Myth (1984). The book re-evaluated the work and reputation of the man whose paper on Penicillium mould inspired the development of the antibiotic drug penicillin by the Oxford University scientists Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley. The archive includes revealing correspondence with people who were connected with the development of antibiotics, including members of Fleming’s family, nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin (whose archive we hold), Norman Heatley (archive at the Wellcome Library) and Edward Penley Abraham (we also hold his archive!).

Macfarlane himself was a clinical pathologist at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford and also held a chair in clinical pathology at the University of Oxford, focusing particularly on the treatment of haemophilia. During the second world war, he worked alongside members of the penicillin team, who did war work with Oxford’s blood transfusion service, and later became friends with Howard Florey. He wrote two biographies during his retirement, this biography of Fleming and a biography of Florey, Howard Florey: the making of a great scientist (1979).

Macfarlane was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1956. His FRS biography is Robert Gwyn Macfarlane, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, G.V.R. Born and D.J. Weatheral, Volume 35, 1990. You can find more about Macfarlane’s scientific career at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription required), or, of course, at Wikipedia.

Bug busting heroes

On the 14th of March, I went with a small group of grad students and research scientists from the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology to Windale Primary School in Oxford to teach three groups of 9 to 10 year olds as part of Windale’s Science Week. The event was part of the Wellcome Trust-funded ‘Pencillin in People’ project which is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the development of penicillin at the Dunn School with a programme that also includes archival cataloguing, exhibitions and oral history.

Alexander Fleming's petri dish of Staph and Penicillium mould

Alexander Fleming’s petri dish of Staph (the white dots) and Penicillium mould (the big blob). Can you spot what’s happened?

This was the second of two identical events, the first hosted in the Dunn School Library on the 22nd of February for children from Pegasus Primary School in Oxford. The theme of the day was ‘Penicillin – From Mould to Medicine’, and the children circulated between three workstations, spending 20 minutes apiece exploring bacteria in a “Meet the Bacteria” session and then being introduced to the “Bug Busting Heroes” Alexander Fleming, Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley and then, to finish, a session on “Making a Medicine” and the production of the penicillin drug.

They were asked to peer into a microscope to see a flea in the flesh; to see if they could spot what Alexander Fleming noticed in his famous petri dish of Staphyloccocus and magical mould; and to experience penicillin in action by bursting a “bacteria” balloon. They learned all sorts of new things (an embarrassing amount of it new to me too) including scientific terminology like bacterium and micro-organism and DNA; the variety of shapes bacteria take; and the amazing things these Oxford scientists achieved with salvaged equipment like bedpans and biscuit tins. They also learned what antibiotics do and what antibiotics don’t do, which is ever more important in a world of antibiotic-resistant bugs.

The plan for the day was to teach the children about this particular, awe-inspiring historical moment, a world-changing medical breakthrough that happened right here in their city – but we also wanted to inspire them with the wonder of discovery and, ultimately, to encourage them in the direction of science. Time will tell!

New catalogue: The archive of Mabel FitzGerald

The catalogue of the archive of Mabel Purefoy FitzGerald is now available online.

Mabel FitzGerald (1872-1973) was of one of the first women to attend classes in histology, physiology and other pre-medical subjects at the University of Oxford in the 1890s, and despite being denied the opportunity to take a degree or enter medical school, she embarked on an eventful career as a physiologist and clinical pathologist which led her from Oxford to Denmark, to Canada, the USA and Edinburgh.

FitzGerald Archive postcard

She became most recognized for her pioneering research on the physiology of breathing and her participation in the subsequently celebrated medical expedition to Pikes Peak, Colorado, in 1911. Her findings, gathered during extensive travels to remote Colorado mining towns, and published 1913 as The Changes in the Breathing and the Blood at Various High Altitudes, remain the accepted account until today of how the concentration of CO2 in the lung and haemoglobin vary with altitude in full acclimatization.

Working with Sir William Osler, John Scott Haldane, CS Sherrington and other eminent scientists, FitzGerald also successfully pursued an eclectic variety of other research interests from bacteriology and immunology to neuroanatomy and gastroenterology – for example, investigating (…and discovering!) the origin of hydrochloric acid in the gastric tubules.
In 1915 FitzGerald took up a position as Clinical Pathologist at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, and in 1920 was appointed Lecturer in Practical Bacteriology at the School of Medicine of the Royal Colleges in Edinburgh. For years, she also sat on the Board of Management of the school, before retiring to Oxford in the mid-1930s.

Read more about FitzGerald’s extraordinary life, and her contributions to medical science, in our blog series.
Some of FitzGerald’s papers – relating to her work in Colorado – will be on display in the next Bodleian Treasures exhibition, which will open later this month.

In addition to Mabel FitzGerald’s personal and professional papers depicting the life and work of a female pioneer in science the archive contains family papers, diaries and correspondence dating back to the 18th century, revealing the history of a well-placed Hampshire/Buckinghamshire of notable standing in the community and many connections to renowned contemporaries.

Meet the FitzGeralds: Mabel (2nd left) with her siblings, her father Richard Purefoy FitzGerald (left) and grandmother Eliza (middle) at the family home North Hall, Preston Candover, c. 1890.

FitzGerald’s paternal grandmother, Sarah Anna Elizabeth ‘Eliza’ FitzGerald née Purefoy Jervoise was a ‘learned lady’ who corresponded with the poet Robert Browning and other literary and intellectual figures of the time, whilst the male members of the Purefoy-FitzGerald family pursued professional, academic or military (…and occasionally: cricket!) careers, adding their letters, notes and diaries to the family archive.

A treasure trove full of big adventures and little stories, scientific papers and family memorabilia, with much potential not only for research in the history of science and medicine, but also for military history, local history and genealogy.

The Wellcome Trust Research Bursaries scheme funds individuals working on small and medium-scale research projects that focus on library or archive collections supported by a Wellcome Trust Research Resources Grant – such as the FitzGerald Archive.

Please visit the Wellcome Trust website for further information.

Norman Heatley Lecture, 2016

On the 1st of November, Jeremy Farrar, the director of the global medical research charity the Wellcome Trust and a former professor of tropical medicine at the University of Oxford, came to the Weston Library to deliver the annual Norman Heatley Lecture which this year celebrated the 75th anniversary of the first clinical trials of penicillin in Oxford in 1941.

Norman Heatley (and cat) with one of his original ceramic penicillin culture vessels

An older Norman Heatley (and cat) with one of his original ceramic penicillin vessels – a modified bed pan. Image from penicillinstory.org.

In those very early days penicillin was enormously difficult to make, both unstable and finicky to extract. So difficult, in fact, that the patient in one of the very first clinical trials, a policeman called Albert Alexander, died when they ran out of the drug only five days into his treatment. It was Norman Heatley, who worked at Oxford’s Sir William Dunn School of Pathology alongside Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, who was the practical genius who invented the tools and techniques which made it possible to extract and purify penicillin in a large enough quantity to reliably use on humans.

In this year’s Norman Heatley Lecture – “1941 to 2041– a changing world” – Jeremy Farrar focused on the astonishing advances in global health care in the 75 years since the development of penicillin, but also on some of the challenges that we now face. Those challenges include ever more antibiotic resistance; the greater likelihood of global pandemics as more people travel further, more quickly; and the sharp increase we’ve seen in the amount of time it takes to get from the research stage to a workable, useable drug.

Technicians making penicillin in the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford, using Norman Heatley's modified bedpans, 1941.

Two technicians extracting penicillin in the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford, using Norman Heatley’s modified bedpans, 1941.

To accompany the lecture a small display in the Weston Library’s Blackwell Hall featured items from the Bodleian’s important collection of documents from the early years of antibiotics, including this photograph of two of the “pencillin girls” (Ruth Callow, Claire Inayat, Betty Cooke, Peggy Gardner, Megan Lankaster and Patricia McKegney) who were recruited to make enough of the drug for clinical trials.

Headington Hill, bellows and giddiness: Alveolar CO2 pressure, and (self-) experiments in respiratory physiology

In 1905, John Scott Haldane and Mabel FitzGerald set out to ‘ascertain the limits within which the alveolar CO2 pressure varies in different individuals’  – i.e. they set out to discover a baseline figure for the carbon dioxide (CO2) pressure in the lungs of healthy human beings – ‘as a knowledge of these limits is essential to a correct appreciation of pathological changes in the alveolar CO2 pressure’. Or to put it another way, the team needed to determine the normal range of alveolar pressure in healthy people before anybody could judge how diseases affected people’s lungs.

To obtain the data, Haldane and FitzGerald used a method and apparatus  which Haldane had introduced in 1898 for measuring the percentage of carbon dioxide in the air people breathed out, widely known as the Haldane Apparatus. These measurements allowed the team to calculate the CO2 concentration or ‘pressure’ in the actual alveoli, and to draw conclusions on the exchange of CO2 and O2 between the lung and the blood – the very foundation of respiratory physiology.

Colleagues, friends and family were amongst the volunteers examined in the first set of experiments conducted at the laboratory at  Haldane’s home in North Oxford, in March and April 1905. These results of these experiments were recorded by Mabel FitzGerald in one of the many notebooks which survive in her archive.

FitzGerald Notebook

A small black notebook (pictured here with some of FitzGerald’s general notes on air analysis) – looking rather inconspicuous, but giving remarkable insights into early experiments in respiratory physiology.

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Women in Science in the Archives: A seminar in pictures

Women in science and, indeed, scientists in general, are still underrepresented in the Bodleian’s archives, at least compared to our vast collections of political and literary papers. At the same time, scientists are often not aware of the ‘historical’ dimension of their work, the potential archival value of their lab notes, research proposals, publication drafts, professional and personal correspondence, CVs, funding applications, articles, photos, committee minutes, diaries … and the many other records they produce during their careers.

The Women in Science in the Archives Seminar, which took place at the Bodleian’s Weston Library on Thursday 8 September, was an attempt to bridge this archives / science divide — but first and foremost, it was a day of celebrating the achievements of historical female scientists in what used to be almost exclusively male-dominated disciplines, and exploring how archives can give a voice to those who are no longer able to speak for themselves. It was also an opportunity to invite today’s women of science into the archives, to discuss the lives and careers of female scientists in the early 21st century,  which kind of challenges they (still!) face, and not least, how these experiences can be preserved in the archives of the future.

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