Medical history at UCL

This week I attended a lecture by the estimable Tilli Tansey . Tilli has been a key figure in the Wellcome Centre for the History of Medicine for some time, from its early days at the Wellcome Trust through to its incorporation into UCL. She is that rare thing – a full-time historian of science who is also a trained scientist. This was her inaugural lecture following her recent appointment (enchairment?) as a Professor at UCL. The title of her lecture was Models and Mechanisms: Aspects of Biomedicine at UCL in the Twentieth Century.
She began by describing the collaboration between Edward Sharpey-Schafer and George Oliver, in 1894. Oliver was a physician who had been working on extracts from the adrenal gland and he believed that they might cause blood pressure to increase. He sought out Schafer, Professor of Physiology at UCL, in order to do further investigations in animals. Their work led to the identification of adrenalin, though it was not immediately known by that name. Ten years later Thomas Elliott, working on adrenalin at Cambridge, is credited with the first articulation of chemical neurotransmission. Tilli suggested that adrenalin is a real molecule of the 20th century, kicking off the study of both endocrinology and neurotransmitters, leading to therapeutic applications, and giving rise to disputes over discovery and nomenclature to boot.
In 1899 Schafer left UCL for Edinburgh and the young Ernest Starling assumed the physiology chair at UCL. Tilli said that when Starling first arrived at UCL he was told that “a medical school is no place to do research”. Presumably that view is less widely held these days, since UCL have just been confirmed as one of the five academic health science centres. Starling, working with his brother-in-law William Bayliss, discovered a substance they called secretin. We now know it as insulin. Their work on secretin contradicted Pavlov’s work showing that pancreatic secretion was entirely controlled by the nervous system, for which Pavlov had received a Nobel prize. It is suggested that this setback was the reason for Pavlov’s change of research direction was direct consequence of the discovery of secretin.
Next on the list of luminaries was Henry Dale, known to me as the first Director of NIMR , the Nobel prizewinning neurophysiologist and originator of biological standardisation. He is also one of Tilli Tansey’s main research interests. I had not previously known that he also spent some of his career at UCL but it seems he undertook some research at UCL in the early years of the twentieth century hence they can claim a little part of him. (But I feel he really belongs to NIMR!). He won the Nobel prize in 1936 for his work on neurotransmitters. It is suggested that Dale was one of the few who had taken note of Elliott’s earlier comment about adrenalin perhaps being released at nerve endings.
Another name to pique my interest was Peter Medawar, again a Nobel prize-winning scientist who spent some years at UCL but went on to become Director of NIMR. He is remembered for his work in immunology, particularly transplantation immunology but also for his insights into the evolution of ageing. He was also a great populariser of science and gifted writer on the philosophy of science.
Tilli also mentioned anatomist John Zachary Young and his work on the octopus, saying that it turned out the octopus nervous system was a very good model for …. the octopus nervous system. He was the first non-medical man to become professor of anatomy, which caused a big stir at the time but soon became the norm.
Finally we came right up to date with the work of Geoffrey Burnstock and Salvador Moncada.
It is always fascinating to hear someone talk who really knows their subject and this lecture was no exception, illustrated with a good many historic photographs and original documents. A real marriage of science and history.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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2 Responses to Medical history at UCL

  1. Matt Brown says:

    Nice write-up, Frank. Tangential story…When I worked at Elseiver we had a meeting room named after Medawar. To cope with the spiraling number of meetings we all thought it necessary to have, the room eventually got partitioned into two rooms and we held a competition to name the new room after another famous scientist. Given that most people in the department were in their late 20s, the second highest vote went to the name ‘Beaker’ after the hapless muppet scientist. But the clear winner was ‘Koch’, thanks to too many employees who grew up reading Viz.
    Fans of history of science might want to point their browsers toward the Royal Society tomorrow at 1pm. Looks like they’ll be webcasting a talk on
    Sir Joseph Banks, Sir Humphry Davy, and the Age of Wonder.

  2. Frank Norman says:

    Matt, I’m not familiar with the contents of Viz I’m afraid. Did it have a regular feature about the great German microbiology pioneer?
    It seems a little sad that Medawar was partitioned, and had another scientist transplanted in. I’m desperately trying to make a pun out of Kochlear transplant, but I can’t quite get there.