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Behind the picture: A bit of a mouthful

In the second of a series of posts looking back on the photo archives of our 100-year history, Sarah Harrop muses on the health and safety of mouth pipetting, flu research and floral trousers. 

NIMR flu researchers pipetting by mouth in the late 1960s

NIMR flu researchers pipetting by mouth in the late 1960s

This photo is from the late 1960s, as the smart ties and ruler-straight side partings give away. It was taken at the WHO World Influenza Centre at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) in Mill Hill, north London.

Supervising is Professor Helio Pereira, a Brazilian researcher who was then Director of the centre and Head of the MRC NIMR’s Virology Division.

Rose Gonsalves, who joined the centre in 1972 as a Junior Lab Technician, remembers him as “a gentle, clever man with a great sense of humour and an appreciation for floral trousers” (this was the 1970s, after all).

He’s overseeing lab technicians Vic Law and Sue Potts, who are carrying out a haemagglutination inhibition test to identify different strains of flu virus. Curiously, they’re using mouth pipettes to transfer saline from bottles into wells on a plate.

Transferring liquids by sucking on the end of a tube may look dangerous by today’s stringent health and safety standards, but Rose says it was a commonly-used technique in the 60s and 70s. Fortunately there was no danger of the mouth pipetter accidentally taking a sharp intake of breath and inhaling a pathogen because the pipettes had plugs in the top.

The haemagglutination inhibition test is still used today to identify viruses, albeit with much smaller samples of virus and automated devices doing much of the work.

The WHO World Influenza Centre at NIMR is still going strong and played a key role in identifying and analysing samples of the H1N1 flu virus during the 2009 ‘swine flu’ pandemic.

Sarah Harrop

This photo is just one of the many images featured in the MRC Centenary Timeline, which can be found on our Centenary website. The timeline covers highlights in the MRC’s history, from the discovery of the structure of DNA to the finding that giving pregnant women folic acid reduces the risk of birth defects. 

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