Tag Archives: Sir William Dunn School of Pathology

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!

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.

Penicillin trials and later

Penicillin trials
The Sir William Dunn School of Pathology

Records of the first human trials of intravenous penicillin carried out at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford in 1941, held by the Bodleian Library, reveal the dramatic results achieved by this new drug, the first safe antibiotic, which had been isolated and developed by Professor Howard Florey and his team at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology over the previous two years.

In February 1941 the first of a number of patients with severe infections, a 43 year old man, responded well for the first five days, but production techniques were not yet sophisticated enough to produce sufficient of the drug to maintain the treatment for long enough and he slowly relapsed and died. Some weeks later a four year old boy was making a good recovery from his infection, having progressed from ‘an ill-looking boy lying quietly in bed’ when first admitted to ‘cheerful and blowing lustily at toy trumpet’ ten days later.  Sadly, he later died of other causes. The efficacy of penicillin in humans had been demonstrated, however, and other patients recovered well and were discharged.

At this very early stage, the word that is now so familiar to us was clearly still unknown even to some hospital staff as, on a number of occasions, it appears as ‘perricillin’ in the records.

Edward Abraham, a biochemist who worked alongside Florey, and who determined the molecular structure of penicillin, went on to work on other antibiotics. In the 1950s, at the Dunn School, he and Dr Guy Newton discovered cephalosporin C, leading to the production of a whole new group of antibiotics. Abraham’s papers are also held at the Bodleian.