Tag Archives: The Wellcome Trust

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.

Emergency Health Kits and Wellcome Pharmaceutical Supplies

Whilst sorting through the ‘project files’ in the Oxfam archive, I found several volumes relating to Afghanistan from the mid-1980s (Oxfam reference AGN 008, Vols. 1-5). These volumes all relate to grants made to the Islamic Aid Health Centre for Afghan Refugees (IAHC), whose head office was in Quetta, Pakistan. The majority of the grants were to enable the IAHC to supply clinics inside Afghanistan with medical supplies.

An initial description of the project’s objectives was: ‘Assistance with supplies of basic medicines and equipment and some funds to six clinics inside Afghanistan which provide rudimentary curative medical facilities to war affected people who otherwise would not be able to have access to such services’. The war referred to here is the conflict between Soviet troops, government forces and the Mujahideen from December 1979 to February 1989.

From its inception, when the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief awarded its first grant to alleviate the suffering of women and children in Nazi occupied Greece, Oxfam’s policy has been to direct aid to ‘where need is greatest, without distinction of nationality’ and ‘irrespective of the political framework in which that need manifests itself’.

There are a number of photographs accompanying the project reports and these help to document how Oxfam’s grants were being used. In a handful we can see the medical supplies that were sent to the clinics in Afghanistan piled high in offices or on the backs of pick-up trucks. Amongst the myriad of brand names and logos on the boxes, I was intrigued to spot some with the blue unicorn logo of the Wellcome pharmaceutical company (Wellcome Foundation Ltd).

Written on the back: ‘A’ unit Arghistan Clinic, 1986 (Bodleian Libraries, Oxfam Archive)

This was an interesting discovery as The Wellcome Trust is a generous sponsor of the work on the Oxfam archive being carried out here at the Bodleian Library. However, in 1995 trustees sold their remaining interest in Wellcome plc to Glaxo plc, an independent company which was known as GlaxoWellcome after the merger. Equally, Oxfam no longer supply medicines or medical equipment.

Written on the back: ‘Four ‘A’ units medicine for Ghazni clinic’, 1987
(Bodleian Libraries, Oxfam Archive)

Written on the back of both these photographs is a reference to ‘A’ units. A’ units were supplied to ‘established clinics inside Afghanistan’, as opposed to ‘B’ units which went to mobile clinics and ‘C’ units which were first aid kits for the Mujahideen.

These references stem from the World Health Organisation guide-lines for an ‘Emergency Health Kit’, and these files contain a copy of lists (A-C) itemising which drugs constitute each unit. There is also one table of likely symptoms and proposed treatment, and another of standardised treatment schedules. According to the WHO guide-lines ‘List A’ is the ‘Basic drug requirements for 10, 000 persons for 3 months’. Whereas ‘List B’ is ‘Drugs for use by doctors and senior health workers, in addition to List A’ and which can only treat 70-150 people. Finally, ‘List C’ is only ‘Basic medical equipment’, which in this case was for Mujahideen fronts where there were no medical workers.

There are five dense volumes packed with reports and photographs relating to IAHC projects, as in addition to medical assistance they were also involved in educational and agricultural projects. Most notably, there is a great deal of information about a Medical Training Course (MTC) which was run by the director of IAHC Dr. A. B. Haqani and the project manager Dr. Susan Welsby.