Makers of Modern Biomedicine: Testimonies and Legacy

‘My memory of almost all the things you want to hear about is extremely faulty and where it is not faulty, it tends to be erroneous, so don’t trust too much.’

Dr Archie Norman at the Witness Seminar on ‘Cystic Fibrosis’, 08/01/2004. Image: Wellcome Library.

Dr Archie Norman, who sadly passed away last month aged 104, made this self-effacing comment during the Wellcome Witness Seminar on Childhood Asthma and Beyond, [1] and it seems to sum up many of the problems inherent in oral history. The frailty of memory; the desire to capture and preserve the recollection of past events provides the impetus behind many an oral history project. The unreliability of memory serves as one of its pitfalls.[2]

Over 20 years ago Dr Tilli Tansey, a former neuroscientist who had completed a second PhD in the history of medicine and was now working at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, organised a meeting bringing together historians, scientists, clinicians and others with an interest in the topic of monoclonal antibodies. Amongst those participating were the Nobel Prize winners, César Milstein and Georges Köhler. Far from a subject solely of interest to scientists, the failure of British Government-funded  institutions to exploit commercially this biotech breakthrough via patents had reportedly incensed the former industrial chemist Margaret Thatcher, who viewed this lack of commercial savvy as little short of scandalous.[3]

Dr Basil Bard, Dr Georges Köhler, Sir Christopher Booth, Prof César Milstein, Mr John Newell at the Witness Seminar on ‘Monoclonal Antibodies’, 24/09/1993. Image: Wellcome Library.

The interest that this meeting generated amongst the audience that day, particularly the way in which the ‘hybrid vigour’ of having both historians and members of the scientific community in attendance illuminated details and elucidated nuances that certainly did not form part of the published scientific papers, convinced Dr (now Professor) Tansey that this method could add something important to the historical record. What’s more, the fact that this was a group endeavour where participants were free to either agree or disagree amongst themselves could be construed as a sort of real-time ‘peer review’, where perhaps the faultiness of memory, whether through forgetfulness or habitual repetition, could be challenged.

The transcript of that meeting became the first in a series, initially entitled Wellcome Witnesses to Twentieth Century Medicine, latterly Wellcome Witnesses to Contemporary Medicine. Similarly, the Research Group has gone through a number of iterations: changes in personnel and host institution, though always with Professor Tansey at the helm, and enjoying financial support from the Wellcome Trust.  Now forming part of the School of History at Queen Mary University of London, the current Strategic Award, Makers of Modern Biomedicine: Testimonies and Legacy, funds a website which is home to all the material the Group has published over the years. In keeping with the early embrace of ‘Open Access’, every published Witness Seminar is freely available to download as a .pdf file. There are now more than 60 of these online (the first two published volumes comprising transcripts of four meetings in each volume). In 2014 the 50th volume was published: a special commemorative ‘A–Z’ featuring highlights from previous Witness Seminars. The intention was to create a publication which was accessible; easy to dip-in and dip-out of. It can be downloaded here.

Additionally, the website features a growing number of oral history interviews with key individual contributors under the rubric Clips and Conversations. Initially the interviewee will undergo an in-depth interview about his/her life and career. The edited transcripts of these are available via the Queen Mary Research Online repository as part of the Group’s Digital Collection. After the initial audio interview, a shorter video interview is filmed. These are all conducted following standard oral history methodology, and have received ethical approval (reference QMREC 0642). Video interview transcripts are edited for clarity and factual accuracy. Five main questions form the framework for the interviews:  ‘How did you become interested in medicine or science?’; ‘What do you consider to be your greatest achievement, or what are you proudest of in your career?’; ‘Did anything go wrong along the way?’; ‘What were the most significant changes in your field over your working career?’; ‘What do you foresee in the next 30 or 40 years in your field of expertise?’.

The ways in which interviewees choose to interpret and respond to these questions are as diverse as the personalities of those involved. The questions simply act as jumping-off points. Sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, always interesting – it is my job as Multimedia Manager to film, edit and subsequently package this footage into thematic ‘clips’.

Professor Shirley Hodgson, screen capture from a video interview, held 04/11/2015. Image: Wellcome Library.

Many of these interviews linger in the memory. The geneticist Professor Shirley Hodgson’s childhood home must have been an exceptional environment in which to grow-up. The daughter of the great polymath Lionel Penrose, and sister to Oxford mathematician Sir Roger, Chess Grandmaster Jonathan, and theoretical physicist Oliver, her own interest in science was fostered by exhuming family pets:

‘… I used to bury them in the garden, and then I used to go into the garden a few months later and dig them up and boil them, and pull off the flesh, and then I would string the vertebrae onto a coat hanger and so in my bedroom there was a little display of skeletons of animals. So, I used to like finding out how things worked.’[4]

Neuropharmacologist Professor Charles Marsden’s mother was a psychiatric social worker at Fulbourn Mental Hospital. He recalled his mother taking him there when he was just a boy in the late 1940s, and seeing a ‘…big sort of lion’s cage in the garden where the patients were allowed to be’ and witnessing the ‘…strange behaviour of the people that were there.’

‘… quite often she used to bring some [patients] home and they would help us plant potatoes and things like that, and stay the night and have extraordinary tales to tell at breakfast time about whom they’d met in the night and so forth, the Queen and such like, total fantasies of course. And then it occurred to me that there was some link I suppose, in later years I realised there was a link with what I’d experienced as a child and these people and the problems that seemed to be increasing around the world, particularly in relation to depression and mental health.’[5]

One of the most fascinating aspects of our research is how great innovation comes about. It is sometimes born out of a flash of insight. Mr Wes Miner’s account of how his colleague Gareth Sanger came to the realisation that 5-HT3 antagonism was responsible for the anti-emetic activity of the compounds they were studying is a good example of one so-called “Eureka moment”.[6] As a result of this Miner and his fellow pharmacologists were able to develop the drugs to combat the nausea-inducing side effects of chemotherapy which have become so helpful for those undergoing treatment.

As we enter the final six months of our project I find myself reflecting on the words of Sir Mark Walport, UK Government Chief Scientific Advisor and author of the Foreword to the aforementioned 50th volume:

‘It is people who innovate and it is the people who scintillate…Their values and personalities come to the fore: humane, free-thinking, always wanting to try new things, to innovate. Their personality traits are also apparent, a cast of individualists and eccentrics, stubborn and cussedly single-minded, accompanied by a strong common denominator of caring and humane compassion.’ [7]

The aim of our project has been to capture something of those personalities for posterity. As with all oral histories, the testimonies we record can only ever be partial. The voices of those departed will always be missing. What we can record of interviewees is, as Archie Norman pointedly remarked, subject to the vagaries of human memory. All we can do is try to ensure that these testimonies will be available for future historians of medicine, to make of them what they will.

Alan Yabsley

Multimedia Manager, Makers of Modern Biomedicine project, School of History, Queen Mary University of London


[1] Reynolds L A, Tansey E M. (eds) (2001) Childhood Asthma and Beyond. Wellcome Witnesses to Twentieth Century Medicine, vol. 11. London: The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL.

[2] See, for example, Tansey E M. (2006) Witnessing the witnesses: potentials and pitfalls of the witness seminar in the history of twentieth-century medicine. In: Doel R E, Söderqvist T. (eds) The Historiography of Contemporary Science, Technology and Medicine: Writing recent science. London: Routledge, 260–78.

[3] What is biotechnology. A missed opportunity? The patent saga Retrieved 06/12/16.

[4] Tansey E M (intvr); Yabsley A (prod) (2016) Hodgson, Shirley: 01 – How and why did you become interested in science? (04-Nov-2015). History of Modern Biomedicine Interviews (Digital Collection), item e2016011. London: Queen Mary University of London.

[5] Tansey E M (intvr); Yabsley A (prod) (2016) Marsden, Charles: 01 – A Cambridge childhood (19-Apr-2016). History of Modern Biomedicine Interviews (Digital Collection), item e2016084. London: Queen Mary University of London.

[6] Tansey E M (intvr); Yabsley A (prod) (2016) Miner, Wesley: 05 – Nausea and vomiting – the ferret model (15-Jul-2016). History of Modern Biomedicine Interviews (Digital Collection), item e2016100. London: Queen Mary University of London.

[7] Jones E M, Tansey E M. (eds) (2014) Monoclonal Antibodies to Migraine: Witnesses to Modern Biomedicine, an A–Z. Wellcome Witnesses to Contemporary Medicine, vol. 50. London: Queen Mary, University of London.

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