The book is organised into two parts. Part one is about the growth and development of the Institute, showing how each Director has helped to shape NIMR. Part two focuses in turn on different areas of the Institute’s science. A very brief digest is shown below.
Part 1: Moulding of the Institute: The Influence of each Director
Chapter 1 – Origins of NIMR
The MRC National Institute for Medical Research – known as the Central Research Institute at its inception in 1914 – was a major development in the UK. It signalled a new way of thinking about the need to turn medical practice from what was largely still an art, into a science. It was groundbreaking in being a state-funded multidisciplinary research institute tackling medical problems.
Chapter 2 – Henry Hallett Dale (1914-1942)
Henry Hallett Dale was one of the first team leaders hired by the MRC for the new Institute in 1914 and became the first overall Director of the National Institute for Medical Research in 1928. Coping with war would be a challenge that was to mark both the beginning and end of Dale’s employment with the MRC, while the intervening period saw the emergence of a world class researcher and administrator.
Chapter 3 – Charles Harington (1942-1962)
It could not have been easy for Charles Harington to inherit an institute in the middle of a war. Many of the younger and middle-aged staff were away fighting, and war-time priorities dictated much of the research programme. But over the next two decades, Harington was to mould a very different kind of institute to the one established by Dale, in the face of a changing world of science, including the influx of women into the workplace.
Chapter 4 – Peter Medawar (1962-1971)
The summer of 1962 marked the beginning of a new era for NIMR, with the arrival of Peter Medawar as the third Director of the Institute. Medawar’s appointment was a major coup for the MRC: recently awarded a Nobel Prize, his charm and international scientific repute was to raise further the profile of their flagship Institute. He permitted research to flourish, and initiated a major building programme to extend and upgrade facilities and keep the Institute at the forefront of biomedical research.
Chapter 5 – Arnold Burgen (1971-1982)
The expansion of the 1950s and 1960s was over; the once spacious new laboratories were full; the facilities were in need of repair. Only two decades after the move to Mill Hill, the Institute that Arnold Burgen took over as Director in 1971 was very different to a decade previously. Burgen set about an ambitious programme of restoration – of both the science and the fabric of the Institute -– despite a meagre budget and conflicting opinions about what research should take place.
Chapter 6 – Dai Rees (1982-1987)
Initially regarded as an outsider, the man from industry, Dai Rees soon earned the respect of NIMR staff. With his managerial skills and political nous, he reorganised the Institute without a major staff revolt, and established the MRC’s first dedicated centre for turning scientific ideas into profits.
Chapter 7 – John Skehel (1987-2006)
John James Skehel had worked at the Institute for nearly 20 years before his appointment as Director on 1 December 1987. He was a familiar face, an amiable colleague, and had a stunning track record of research on the influenza virus. The first part of his directorship ran fairly smoothly, but at the start of the new millennium, Skehel became embroiled in the biggest row the staff had ever known with the MRC – a battle that played out both in the UK Parliament and the media.
Chapter 8 – Jim Smith and the Road to the Crick (2006-2014)
2014 marks 100 years since the inception of NIMR, and 10 years since the decision was made to move the Institute from its lofty perch on Mill Hill into central London. In 2015, the name NIMR will disappear as the Institute merges with another, the London Research Institute (LRI) of Cancer Research UK, to form the new Francis Crick Institute, together with university partners University College London, King’s College London and Imperial College London. The Crick will occupy a brand new building adjacent to the British Library and London’s St. Pancras station, becoming the biggest interdisciplinary biomedical research institute in Europe on one site.
In 2004 it was clear that any move would take at least 10 years to achieve, and that care was needed to avoid losing in transition the brightest minds and the special ethos that prevails at Mill Hill. As the name of NIMR disappears, so might its identity and possibly also its reputation – if the move is not well managed. Relocating the Institute is one thing, but maintaining its scientific excellence and output is another. Not everyone is convinced that relocation is for the better. But with the decision now firmly in place, the journey has begun: NIMR is already well along the road to the Crick.
Part 2: The Scientific Story
Chapter 9 – Biochemistry and Biophysics
Biochemistry and biophysics bring very different angles to medical research as compared to, say, virology or parasitology, where a particular disease organism might occupy a lifetime’s work. Biochemistry focuses on molecular and chemical understanding of life; biophysics uses physical methods to study biological systems. Over the past 100 years, while biochemists and biophysicists have come and gone, and their divisions and laboratories have opened, metamorphosed and closed, their influence has permeated the entire Institute and contributed to major scientific developments.
Chapter 10 – Chemistry
From its inception, NIMR has needed chemists who could probe and isolate biological molecules and create novel compounds. Chemists at NIMR have always had ambitious goals of their own and introduced new ways to tackle problems that biologists alone could not solve. The results were impressive: of five Nobel prizes awarded to scientists who have spent a substantial part of their career at the Institute, two were for chemistry. This chapter charts the key role of chemists and highlights their enormous impact in both the fields of chemistry and of biology.
Chapter 11 – Neuroscience
Neuroscience has been pursued at NIMR from the beginning. The first Director, Henry Dale, and his colleagues investigated the link between nerve activity and physiological effects such as gland secretion and muscle contraction. They provided definitive evidence for the theory of chemical transmission in which nerve impulses release specific chemical signals at nerve endings. Over successive generations, researchers at NIMR have produced a far more detailed understanding of how the nervous system works, and how it can go wrong in disease conditions.
Chapter 12 – Pharmacology
The story of Pharmacology at NIMR traces the development of the concept of receptors and drug action, from the first clues in the early 20th century through to the direct monitoring of drugs binding to their targets and the real time observation of individual receptors moving on the surface of a cell in living tissue. Solving the NMR and X-ray structures of drug-receptor complexes has enabled the structure-based design of drugs, one of which is entering clinical trials for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Many significant scientific advances have occurred through noticing developments in different fields, a practice that in no small part has been nurtured by the NIMR ethos of easy communication between scientists.
Chapter 13 – Animal research and welfare
Today’s animal research facilities have computer-controlled environments and highly trained staff who care for animals housed in state-of-the-art caging systems. But 100 years ago no such technology existed. NIMR has a distinguished history of developing standards, practices and equipment that have improved animal welfare and helped shape the modern animal technology profession. These in turn have contributed to major scientific discoveries. The Institute continues to maintain and develop standards, with the long-term goal of reduction, refinement, and replacement of animals in research.
Chapter 14 – Biological standardisation
Biological assays are widely used in biomedical research and many advances have depended on the discoveries made with bioassays. For 50 years NIMR pioneered the standardisation of materials of biological origin used as medicines in order to characterise and quantify the active substance, to help ensure safety and effectiveness for patients.
Chapter 15 – Virology
World War One brought tragedy on an immense scale, with millions of dead and wounded soldiers. In its wake, came a devastating wave of illness and death from influenza – the 1918-19 ‘Spanish ‘Flu” pandemic. An estimated 50 million people died worldwide, with mortality highest among adults aged 20 to 50 years old. Such was the impact of the pandemic that the newly established Medical Research Committee resolved to make influenza research a high priority in the hope of finding a new treatment or vaccine.
Chapter 16 – Parasitology
Parasitology research at NIMR grew out of early ambitions to develop new drugs for treating diseases that mostly affected British citizens and troops abroad. Questions about how parasites caused disease and the response of the host – whether laboratory animals or people – led to a science that moved from the descriptive to the experimental. From schistosomiasis, filariasis and sleeping sickness to, particularly in recent decades, malaria and toxoplasmosis, NIMR scientists have pioneered new approaches in order to understand and improve the treatment and control of parasitic disease.
Chapter 17 – Tuberculosis and leprosy
Tuberculosis and leprosy are two diseases with global significance. One hundred years ago, tuberculosis (TB) was a major killer in the UK and around the world, and leprosy was an enormous blight for those living in the tropics, including many of the countries that formed Britain’s empire. Some NIMR researchers spent many years working abroad on these mycobacterial diseases while others coordinated international efforts from London. They had to deal with internal rivalry, political upheaval, and the peculiar characteristics of the pathogens involved, before making important advances in treatment and prevention.
Chapter 18 – Applied Physiology
The history of physiology at NIMR is a story of extremes. From its very beginnings the Institute’s scientists have sought to define the limits of human endurance in extreme environments such as heat and cold, leading to key changes in workplace environments and the exploits of mountaineers, explorers, the armed forces and others who venture into the Earth’s most inhospitable places.
Chapter 19 – Reproduction, hormones and metabolism
From the 1930s onwards, a new wave of research began at NIMR on the physiology of sexual reproduction and fertility. Through research on cell freezing and hormones, they redefined the limits of life itself, leading to many practical benefits in areas including contraception, the treatment of infertility and diabetes and other hormonal conditions in humans, as well as for livestock farming.
Chapter 20 – Immunology
Immunology research was a fledgling science when it was established formally at NIMR less than 60 years ago. Over the past five decades, however, the field grew massively and attracted many researchers to the Institute who have since gone on to become world leading researchers in basic research and in applying immunology to clinical problems.
Chapter 21 – Developmental biology
Understanding how a fertilised egg transforms into a highly complex and functional organism during development is a fascinating problem in biology. Identification of the mechanisms underlying development has contributed to the understanding of disease and the creation of potential therapies. NIMR is a leading international player in the field of developmental biology and has made many ground-breaking discoveries.
Chapter 22 – Achievements
Over the past 100 years scientists at NIMR have won a multitude of prizes and awards, they have published high profile research articles and gained international recognition. But how did they get there, and what is so special about NIMR? With hindsight it may seem obvious which combination of factors led to a particular achievement, but it is hard if not impossible to predict the necessary elements in advance: many of the Institute’s achievements have arisen from a peculiar mix of personal preferences, chance, individual talents and collaborations.