MRC publishing – 100 years on

It may have escaped your notice that this year is the 100th anniversary of the Medical Research Council, and there has been a cornucopia of celebratory activities to mark the occasion.  One aspect that has not been much remarked on is the history of the MRC as a publisher. Since I have a Library store full of MRC publications I think it is probably down to me to wave this particular flag. Our recent open day motivated me to put together a little exhibition about MRC publishing, and I thought I might as well inflict it on my blog too.

Here are the notes about, and some photos of, the exhibits. I know the photos aren’t very exciting. In truth, the exhibition wasn’t very exciting either. In the feedback one person commented that it was a bit dull and “not interactive”. I know it is a niche interest but I  hope that this blogpost might find that niche.

One half of the exhibition.

MRC as a publisher

The Medical Research Committee (this was the original title of the MRC until it was reconstituted and renamed ‘Council’ in 1920) encouraged investigators to publish their results independently, in order to make them “readily available in the general pool of scientific knowledge”. MRC investigators had “freedom to publish without official approval”.

This policy helped to enhance MRC’s scientific credibility: MRC was about science not about politics. In the 1925-6 annual report the MRC said:

There is no certitude in science except that which is gained by the free and gradual suffrage of general scientific opinion based on repetition at will of the experimental facts reported.

The great bulk of MRC-funded research was (and still is) published in scientific journals, but MRC also had an extensive publishing programme itself, especially in earlier years.

Bear in mind that the range of journals available in 1913 was rather different, and more limited, than it is today. Looking in the MRC Annual Report for 1915-1916 (the first one with detailed listings of publications) the dominant journals are BMJ and Lancet, with about 30 publications each.  Next comes the Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps with 11 then Biochemical Journal with eight, and Journal of Physiology with four.  There were one or two publications in each of another eight journals. This restricted choice of publishing venue makes it easier to understand why MRC considered it needed to publish some research itself, in dedicated channels.

1.       The earliest MRC book

One of the earliest actions of the MRC was to commission a book about milk. It was published by Longmans, but under the direction of the MRC. It gathered together knowledge about milk from a wide variety of disciplines and sources. Its author, Janet Lane-Claypon was a pioneer in epidemiology and the use of cohort studies. (Incidentally, she deserves a better Wikipedia page).

  • Milk and its hygienic relations by Janet Lane-Claypon (1916)

The first book the MRC commissioned.

2.         MRC Special Report Series (the green reports) and MRC Memoranda

MRC issued a small proportion of its researchers’ outputs in a series of Special Reports. These were published when results needed to be widely circulated, e.g. to medical services in the armed forces, or when sales to the general public were expected.  Many early Special Reports dealt with subjects relevant to the war effort. They were also used for reports of committees, assessments of the state of knowledge on a subject, and when results were too large for a journal article. The last Special Report was published in 1971.

MRC also issued short memoranda during the second world war. Subsequently some memoranda were issued for reports of ad hoc investigations and summaries of existing knowledge, aimed at medical practitioners.

The topics covered by the Special Reports and Memoranda illustrate the variety of MRC research. One day I will write a proposal to have the complete set digitised and deposited in PubMedCentral.  It has been talked of but no-one has done it yet.

a) A selection of Special Reports and Memoranda

  • Report of the committee on bed-bug infestation (1942). SRS 245
  • Hearing aids and audiometers (1947). SRS 261
  • The Rh blood groups and their clinical effects by P.L. Mollison et al (1952). MRC Memorandum 27
  • Employment problems of disabled youth in Glasgow by T. Ferguson et al (1952). MRC Memorandum 28

One of the Special Reports Series.

b) Special Reports on child health

  • The mortalities of birth, infancy & childhood (1917). SRS 10
  • A study of social and economic factors in the causation of rickets (1918). SRS 20
  • A study of growth and development: observations in successive years on the same children by R.M. Fleming (1933). SRS 190

Another volume in the Special Reports Series.

c) Special Reports on nutrition

An early bestseller was SRS no. 38, on vitamins, while no. 235 and its successor no. 297 (in several editions) became a classic work on the composition of foods.

  • Report on the present state of knowledge of accessory food factors (vitamins) (1924). SRS 38
  • Vitamins: a survey of present knowledge (1932). SRS 167


  • Chemical composition of foods by R.A. McCance and E.M. Widdowson (1940). SRS 235
  • McCance and Widdowson’s The Composition of Foods (1978). SRS 297, 4th edition.

McCance and Widdowson – several editions.

3.         Bacteriology

The NCTC catalogue was a valuable tool for researchers needing access to bacterial strains.

  • Catalogue of the National Collection of Type Cultures (1931). SRS 64, 3rd edition.

A nine-volume work on bacteriology, edited by Paul Fildes and John Ledingham, was a monumental reference book in its day.

  • A system of bacteriology in relation to medicine (1930-31). 9 volumes

Fildes and Ledingham’s great work on bacteriology.

4a.         War medicine – First world war

Almost as soon as the MRC was formed, the onset of the first world war meant that war medicine became a priority in the early years. The good work carried out by the MRC meant that it emerged from the war with its reputation firmly established. The MRC Annual Report 1917-18 has an account of research directed to the war effort.

Some examples of research reports relevant to the war:

  • The classification and study of the anaerobic bacteria of war wounds (1917). SRS 12
  • An atlas of gas poisoning (1918)

Beautifully and disturbingly illustrated atlas of gas poisoning.

  • 656 cases of gunshot wound of the head (1918). Statistical report no. 1
  • An analysis of 8,670 ophthalmic cases treated at a home hospital (1919). Statistical report no. 3
  • Studies of influenza in hospitals of the British armies in France, 1918 (1919). SRS 36

Statistics of gunshot wounds.

4b.    War medicine – Second world war

Again in 1939 the MRC directed its energies to supporting the nation’s war effort. Much of the detail is in Medical research in war. Report of the MRC for the years 1939-45 and in the later Medical history of the second world war edited by F.H.K. Green and Gordon Covell (1953).

A synthesis of MRC work in the second world war.

Example of research reports:

  • Report of the committee on tuberculosis in war time (1942). SRS 246
  • MRC War Memoranda nos. 1-17 (1940-46)

One of the War Memoranda (number 7 – Aids to the investigation of peripheral nerve injuries) had a very large circulation.  It eventually became a key diagnostic textbook, that is now its 6th edition and has been translated into several languages (see this account).

5.         Guides to medical literature

Medical Science: abstracts and reviews developed from efforts during the first world war to keep British military physicians informed about advances in medical science. It includes collective abstracts (or review articles) on various subjects as well as abstracts of single articles which the editors thought to be of special importance. The first volume was in 1919 and it ceased publication in 1925, by which time other similar abstracting journals had appeared in a number of fields. Just imagine – if MRC had continued to publish Medical Science it might have lasted up to the digital age and we could have had a homegrown Medline/PubMed in the UK.

The Bulletin of war medicine was published during the second world war “for medical men deprived of normal access to medical literature”. The Influenza Bibliography was produced by the NIMR Library and sent to members of the WHO collaborating network of influenza centres around the world from 1971-2010.

6.         Health & Safety – accident prevention

The Industrial Health Research Board was part of the MRC and published most of its research in its own report series, mainly due to the lack of suitable scientific journals in this field.

  • The influence of alcohol on manual work and neuromuscular coordination (1919). SRS 34
  • The incidence of industrial accidents upon individuals with special reference to multiple accidents (1919). Reports of the Industrial Fatigue Research Board, no. 4
  • Some studies in the laundry trade by May Smith (1922). Reports of the Industrial Fatigue Research Board, no. 22

  • The incidence of neurosis among factory workers by Russell Fraser (1947). Industrial Health Research Board Report no. 90

  • Toxicity of industrial organic solvents by Ethel Browning (1952). Industrial Health Research Board Report no. 80

The book by Ethel Browning became a classic toxicity book. The safety guide Safety precautions in laboratories (1960) predates the Health & Safety at Work Act by many years.

7.         Other MRC publications

The definitive history of the MRC’s first 50 years is Half a century of medical research by A. Landsborough Thomson. (1973-5). 2 volumes. This is always the starting point for any research about the MRC and its scientific programme.

A report in 1991 looked at how genome research was developing. I recall that back in 1990, not long after I had joined the Institute, I was summoned to a meeting with Diane McLaren (the author of this report), Dai Rees (MRC Chief), Ben Martin (bibliometrics expert) and a couple of genome researchers.  As part of a grand survey of genome research MRC wanted a bibliometric analysis of genome research publications.  My role was to advise on a suitable Medline search strategy to extract the base data for the analysis. It was a bit scary at first, but interesting and flattering to be involved. I’m not sure what happened to that survey as it doesn’t seem to have been published in this review.

  • Human genome research: a review of European and international contributions by Diane McLaren (1991)

The MRC produced a number of short guides on research ethics:

  • The ethical conduct of AIDS vaccine trials (1991)
  • The ethical conduct of research on children (1991)
  • Responsibility in investigations on human participants and material and on personal information (1991)

8.         MRC Annual Reports

These are less noteworthy – more like corporate documents. They were general accounts of the Council’s activity, and ‘yearbooks’ about research establishments, staff and programmes. The earlier reports have distinguished introductions drafted by Sir Walter Morley Fletcher, the first secretary of the MRC.

In the 1948-9 report a section Some Aspects of Medical Research appeared for the first time. Between 1955/6 and 1967/8 this section was reprinted as a separate pamphlet, as it provides a very useful overview of medical research topics. One day I hope that digital versions of all the MRC Annual reports will be published, as they are such a useful resource for the history of medical research in the UK.

In later years the annual publications were substantially slimmed down and became glossier and more colourful. The print runs were reduced, and they were also made available as pdfs on the MRC website. Now the Annual Review is also issued as an epub.

  • Annual Report 1914-15
  • Annual Report 1929-30
  • Annual Report 1948-50
  • Current Medical Research 1955-56
  • Current Medical Research 1959-60
  • Current Medical Research 1965-66
  • Annual Review 2001-2
  • Annual Review 2007-8

9.        Public-facing publications

More recently some MRC publications have focused explicitly on communication to the general public, with more readily understandable text and higher production values.

  • Mice and medicine (2000)
  • MRC Network Mar/Apr 2011
  • MRC Network Winter 2012/13
  • MRC Network Spring 2013

A selection of more recent MRC corporate publications.

NIMR started publishing the Mill Hill Essays, aimed at the general public, in 1995:

  • Mill Hill Essays 2003
  • Mill Hill Essays 2004
  • Mill Hill Essays 2010
  • Mill Hill Essays 2011/12

10.        Open Access and European PubMedCentral

After the US National Institutes of Health launched PubMedCentral (PMC) in 2000, changes began in the world of biomedical research publishing. Prompted by myself the MRC did take note of what was happening and in 2000/2001 there were quite serious discussions about creating a UK mirror of PMC, though these came to nought. A few years later in 2007 things had moved on and UK PMC was launched by a consortium led by Wellcome Trust but including the MRC. More recently it was renamed EuropePMC.  The European Research Council with 18 other UK and European funders fund this service.

The MRC now requires that electronic copies of research papers it funds are deposited in Europe PubMed Central, where they can be read freely.

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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