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Behind the picture: Major Greenwood and the measure of medicine

Major Greenwood (Image credit: MRC Biostatistics Unit)

Major Greenwood (Image credit: MRC Biostatistics Unit)

The introduction of measurement into medicine established the foundations of the modern discipline of biostatistics, crucial to all aspects of medicine, epidemiology and public health. But how did statistics become so embedded? Isabel Baker looks back at Professor Major Greenwood, an eminent statistician of the 20th century, who developed and encouraged some of the first uses of modern statistical methods in medical science.

This 1920s photo of Major Greenwood ― whose forename was Major, rather than reflecting military rank ― pictures him smiling cheerily on a wooden bench. But it gives little away about the nature of this distinguished and imposing man who dedicated his life’s work to statistics.

“There can be no doubt that to many people he was rather formidable,” reads a tribute to Greenwood in the London Hospital Gazette’s obituary. “But those who knew him best realised that he was just as critical of himself as of others, and that much of his ungenial manner was really due to shyness.” [1]

Greenwood started his career by following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both well-respected doctors. But in 1904, while working part-time as a GP, he attended a course on statistics at University College and found a new interest. Read more

Fishing for treatments for muscle diseases

Jane Patrick

Jane Patrick

Jane Patrick, a PhD student at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, studies zebrafish to learn more about muscle diseases such as muscular dystrophy. She explains her work in her commended entry for the 2014 Max Perutz Science Writing Award.

Which muscles are you using right now? Perhaps you’re absent-mindedly shaking a leg or munching on food? At the very least, I expect you’re breathing. The chances are you haven’t even noticed your muscles working. Most of us take our muscles for granted, but for a child born with an inherited muscle disease, such as myopathy or muscular dystrophy, it isn’t that simple.

These children have a faulty copy of a gene meaning their muscle doesn’t develop or work properly, so they have weak or degenerating muscles from birth or a very young age, and often developmental problems too. The problem is there are a vast number of different genes that can be affected, some unique to one patient, which gives a huge range of symptoms and makes it difficult to find an effective treatment.   Read more

Q&A: The ins and outs of the Clinical Research Capabilities and Technologies Initiative

MRI scan of a human head

An MRI scan of a human head (Image credit: Wikipedia/everyone’s idle)

Today Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced the recipients of our Clinical Research Capabilities and Technologies Initiative, with 23 projects receiving a total of just over £170m. But what exactly are these ‘capabilities’, what do we hope to achieve, and where did all that money come from? Katherine Nightingale takes a closer look.

What do we mean by clinical research capabilities?

It’s about new technologies for clinical research. We’re all familiar with the idea of clinical research being about clinical trials to assess drugs, devices and diagnostics in people. Clinical research is often seen as the end of the ‘pipeline’ from making discoveries in the laboratory to helping patients, but that’s not the whole story.

We want to make clinical research in the UK also about studying disease at the molecular, cellular, organ and whole-body level ― and to do that researchers need new tools. This includes better body-imaging equipment, new technology for monitoring physiology, and ways of analysing the intricacies of disease in cells and tissues. Doing this needs big pieces of kit, as well as resources for building on the equipment in the future and using it in new ways.

Discoveries made in this way might then be fed back ‘into the lab’ or go on to influence further clinical research. The aim is that by funding these technologies, we’ll build on existing infrastructure, and speed up innovation by allowing researchers to explore new areas. Read more