An 80th annivirusary

For most of us, appearances on TV are still unusual enough to generate some excitement.  Even just a slight chance of a televisual encounter can get the pulse racing. Last December I became briefly excited on hearing that the BBC were to do some filming here about the Institute’s influenza research. They wanted to film the Library’s model of the structure of influenza haemagglutinin and there was a passing mention of a remote possibility of them maybe wanting someone to read out a text if a suitable person was available (pleassir, me sir, me, me!). Well, on that occasion fame didn’t beckon but they made a good video piece about the Institute’s flu research, past and present, interviewing staff from the WHO Influenza Centre here.

As part of my getting-carried-away-with-myself I fished out a few books and reprints connected with influenza to make a little display. I chose some articles from around the time that NIMR scientists first identified the flu virus, as well as some older books. I dont think the BBC film crew noticed my efforts and I confess it was a bit of a half-hearted attempt.  But at least one person did notice it – one of our esteemed virologists (now retired but still very much involved in flu work) remarked on the display, and I admitted that it was my work. He also pointed out that 2013 would be the 80th anniversary of the landmark paper identifying the flu virus, published 8 July 1933 in The Lancet. He said there was an idea to mark this with some kind of event, so I asked him to let me know when the plans were finalised.

Over the next few months I asked again from time to time but soon realised that the idea had faded away. But it seemed to good an opportunity to let pass, so last month I pressed another of our esteemed virologists (not retired) to write something about the anniversary to put up on the Institute website. He sent me something just before our Open Day at the end of last month. I was too madly busy with preparations for the Open Day to do anything with it right away.

The Open Day went off well, with a wonderful unexpected visitor. The day kicked off with three science talks, one of them on influenza.  At the end of that talk a hand went up to ask a question and a certain Dennis Busby stood up and said “I joined the influenza research group at NIMR in 1934, and then in 1936 I was the first person to be injected with the flu vaccine”. Heads turned to look at him, a piece of living virological history. The more cynical members of the audience probably thought he had been planted, but I can assure you he wasn’t – everyone was taken by surprise. Dennis became the centre of attention after that.

Next day I got into action and discovered that Tilli Tansey had interviewed Den Busby for her 2008 article on research technicians, including a number of quotes from him. He joined NIMR in 1934 aged 15 and gradually worked his way up to head technician before retiring in late 1979. I also found a few photos of him in the archives.  I dashed off an email to my colleagues in the MRC Press Office, hoping to inspire them with some influenza history – an anniversary and a human interest story. A few days later and I was rewarded with the news that there was to be a blogpost on the MRC blog (a version of the piece that our virologist had written), plus another piece on the Guardian‘s history of science blog, the H-word, guest-written by Michael Bresalier. I remembered Michael from a few years ago when he visited to look at our archives.  His PhD thesis is about the history of influenza, and I see that he has  a book coming out soon about the subject so he is well-qualified to write about this anniversary.

So, these are the three (overlapping) pieces that came out this morning on the Guardian, MRC and NIMR blogs/websites, variously on some combination of influenza, MRC, NIMR, 1933, and Dennis Busby:

It’s also worth mentioning another account that came out as a Mill Hill Essay a few years back:

So, what of my little book display about influenza? In the face of all this historico-virological scholarship I feel shy to highlight my random assemblage of biblio objects.  But it’s now or never, so here goes. They are just a few things that were easy to find and seemed significant or interesting to me.

  1. Pride of place must go to the 1933 Lancet paper. (Elsevier have kindly agreed to grant universal access to this paper in perpetuity).
    • Wilson Smith, C.H. Andrewes, P.P. Laidlaw (1933) A virus obtained from influenza patients. Lancet 222(5732): 66–68. Article fulltext

  1. A couple of years later Christopher Andrewes gave a brief introduction to a meeting on influenza, and highlights some of the issues that were still unclear at that time about the virus.
    • C.H. Andrewes (1935) Influenza in Man and Animals Proc R Soc Med. 28(7): 941–950. Article fulltext.
  2. Patrick Laidlaw gave the 1935 Linacre Lecture on influenza, relating the background to their 1933 paper and the research leading up to it.  He also highlights the questions remaining to be decided, about the apparent variation in the virus. The lecture was published in the Lancet.
  3. Later Andrewes gave another overview of influenza, this time to a BMA meeting. He mentioned the early work in testing a vaccine, and noted the differences between strains of virus saying “the tangle is not going to be an easy one to unravel”. He concluded that “there are grounds for hope that an effective prophylactic against influenza may be found”.
    • C. H. Andrewes (1937) Influenza: Four Years’ Progress. Br Med J. 2(4001): 513–515. Article fulltext

Going back in time, I fantasised that these next three books might actually have been consulted by the team of Andrewes, Smith and Laidlaw.  Unfortunately closer inspection suggests that probably none of these items were actually in the Library in 1933.

  1. Die Grippe-Epidemie im Deutschen Heere 1889-90. Berlin, Ernst Siegfried Mittler und Sohn, 1890. [The flu epidemic in the German army. With a rather nice cover.]

  1. M.C. Winternitz, Isabel M. Wason and Frank P. McNamara. The pathology of influenza. Yale Univ Press, 1920. [Observations during the 1918 epidemic in New Haven, USA. Has very fine illustrations, including this Aubrey Beardsley-like picture.]

  1. University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Studies on Epidemic Influenza; Comprising Clinical and Laboratory Investigations. Univ Pittsburgh, 1919. [Investigations during the epidemic at Pittsburgh, 1918. This seems like a good summary of knowledge about the disease at that time. It also has some illustrations].

Finally, a short overview of influenza written in 1976 by two more names to conjure with from the history of flu research at NIMR:

  1. Influenza: the virus and the disease. Charles H. Stuart-Harris and Geoffrey C. Schild. London, Edward Arnold, 1976.

Handling these books and typing this post I find myself sneezing a little.  I’m not sure whether it is the high pollen count today, or the dust from the old books, or just a sympathetic immune response to the idea of the flu virus.  I hope that reading my words hasn’t induced a similar effect in you.

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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2 Responses to An 80th annivirusary

  1. aeon says:

    Thanks, Frank! That’s was an interesting read, and I am grateful for the links. Being no virologist, I was unaware that the ID of the flu virus was made in the 30s.

    If you ever meet Mr. Busby again, please tell him that some people regard him as a true hero. I certainly do, now.

  2. Frank says:

    Thanks, aeon. I hope we will be able to entice him to visit us again, perhaps next year when we will have another celebration. People like Den – senior technical staff – easily get overlooked when histories of science are written but they can be very influential even when not acting as human guinea pigs. Tilli Tansey’s article on technicians, that I linked to above, makes fascinating reading and I hope there will be more in a similar vein sometime.

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