One hundred years old

Just a few years back it seemed unlikely that we would ever celebrate our centenary. We were to be rejuvenated exterminated absorbed into a new Institute.  Back in 2007 when this project was announced we expected that 2013 would be the beginning of the new, and the end of the old Institute just shy of its 100 years. But the awesome immensity of the project to design and build the Francis Crick Institute meant its opening date was pushed a little further into the future. Now it is anticipated that the official transfer of staff from NIMR to the new Institute will take place in 2015 (though physical relocation to the new building will take a bit longer). Hence, NIMR will cease to exist as an entity having reached the Adrian Mole-esque age of 100 and three-quarters.

The Centenary

I like anniversaries so I’m glad we made it to 100.  Just over three years ago I remarked to those in power that 2014 would be our 100th anniversary. A consensus quickly formed that we should mark this centenary. A variety of ideas were floated, and we prioritised three of them: a book about the history of the Institute, a film about the Institute, and a scientific symposium/celebration. These all came to fruition, though some had a more tortuous path than others.

The date of foundation of the Institute is not clear-cut. Many people assume that we started life in 1950 – when we moved into our present purpose-built accommodation in Mill Hill. Some think we began in 1920 – which is when the Institute moved into its first home at Hampstead and when it first acquired the name of National Institute for Medical Research. I have also seen the date given as 1918 – I am not sure why. There is some rationale for giving the start date as 1913, when the MRC was created and when it decided, in one of its first meetings, to create a “Central Institute”.

I examined the first annual report of the MRC, for 1914-15, in hope of finding an answer. I learnt that the MRC purchased the building in Hampstead in early 1914, and that the first Institute staff commenced MRC employment on 1 July 1914. This – the beginning of research work – seemed like a reasonable criterion for determining the first existence of the Institute, even though the staff were not housed in the Hampstead building at that time.  So we agreed to settle for 1 July 2014 as our anniversary date.

The Symposium

The speakers were a mixture of current staff and alumni, covering all areas of science from infectious disease and immunology to structural biology, developmental biology and neuroscience. I attended all the talks and  pushed out tweets for two days from the Institute Twitter account, using hashtag #100NIMR. Some talks were pitched better than others, so listening could be hard work and extracting something meaningful to tweet about was challenging for a non-specialist like me. Luckily I had help from some fellow Institute tweeters. If you really want to read all about it see the Storify for the symposium.

After the main symposium there were two further events. Julie Clayton, author of the new book on the history of the Institute, gave a talk on Institute history, and a film about the Institute made by Taslima Khan was shown.

The Book

The book about the Institute history was my main contribution to the centenary. I gave shape to the idea, I created an outline, I pushed for it to happen, I made plans, I suggested sources, I oversaw the project and was involved at all stages.  I even drafted a couple of chapters and did some editing.  I also had to make sure that the project was delivered on time, meant we had to be realistic about what we could achieve in the time available.  How we wished we could have included more material, spoken to more people, added further chapters, but that would have needed more time than we had. Our primary target audience was current and past staff of the Institute, and we wanted to deliver something that was readable and enjoyable. (See my previous post  about our thought processes in defining the book’s scope).

It was 18 months of hard work, both for the writer we engaged, Julie Clayton, and for me. We were lucky to have a summer assistant in 2013 – Sophie Hopkins – who analysed several printed sources (Annual Reports mostly) to extract lists of names, Divisions, and associated dates and affiliations. The master spreadsheets that Sophie produced, covering 100 years, proved invaluable.  My workload increased as we gradually got closer to the final form with round after round of editing and rewriting. Colleagues in the PhotoGraphics department put the book together into its final shape, and scanned the hundreds of photos that were included in the book.


I think the result is everything that we hoped it might be but a lot better than I dared hope it would be. It would have been easy to write something quite dry and factual. It would have been fun to focus on amusing anecdotes. Julie steered a careful path between these two extremes, managing to tell the institutional story alongside several human stories. She also lowered the level of technical detail so that the text would be accessible to non-specialists. Each of the 22 chapters is a good read in itself but put together they add up to a great book.

All staff have been given a copy. The book is also published online as a series of PDFs, on a special History of NIMR blog created for the purpose.  We will be adding more material there in due course. I aim to post most of the images used in the book to Wikimedia Commons.

The Film

In 1964 the BBC’s Horizon series made a film about NIMR. We wanted to make a fresh film, about the Institute in 2014, one that captured the essence of the place and the people who work there today. I grabbed this ball and ran with it for a bit, having discussions with a group of interested ex-staff including two who were in the film-making business. We thought we could make a commercially viable film, something for BBC4 say, but it became apparent that the kind of film that could be made for that market would not fit with our ambitions – just to reflect the reality of the Institute and its life. So the idea was abandoned. Disappointment was tempered with relief – I needed to focus on the book project.

However, one of the group – a past PhD student who still lived locally – held on to the idea and eventually she was given approval to make a film on her own initiative.  She interviewed various past members of staff and a few current staff, and assembled these interviews very skilfully into a coherent whole. The result was magnificent – a funny and informative and revealing film.

She is doing a little more work on the film and hopes to produce a version that can be shared more widely by the end of this year. The film is a great complement to the history book, with some overlap as well as some fresh material.

The Memory

I really enjoyed the final session of the Symposium on Wednesday afternoon, with the history talk, film, cake-cutting and party all going off splendidly. I hope that an awareness of the Institute’s past is now fixed in the minds of the present staff, and that the foundations of NIMR’s research culture and achievements are now writ large for the future.

About Frank Norman

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