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Last of the ‘lab-boys’

Len Ward's colleague Vic Wright in the NIMR chemistry lab in 1934. Len had to remove and clean all these bottles once a week (please see copyright disclaimer below.)

Len Ward’s colleague Vic Wright in the NIMR chemistry lab in 1934. Len had to remove and clean all these bottles once a week (please see copyright disclaimer below.)

The vital work of laboratory technicians is often missing from accounts of modern medical research. Medical historian Professor Tilli Tansey studied practices at the MRC’s National Institute of Medical Research to explore changing attitudes to lab technicians over the past century.

The National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) was established in Hampstead in 1919. Initially, four departments were formed: Applied Physiology; Bacteriology; Biochemistry & Pharmacology; and Statistics. Each departmental head employed a lab assistant, and negotiated directly with the MRC about their technician’s salary and conditions. However by 1920, with nine scientists and approximately 15 assistants (including technical, animal house and maintenance staff) this system became unworkable. Consequently, formal pay and pension scales for all staff were created and a limited number of higher ‘A’ technical grades.

Restricted career progression

Many who later became senior technical staff at the NIMR started as ‘lab-boys’. In 1928, at the age of 14, Len Ward, who worked at the NIMR until 1976, began work in the animal house. In an interview in 1994 he described how he looked after rabbits and chickens, prepared their feed and cleaned out the cages. Being so small he had to stand on an upturned orange box to be able to reach the top racks: “[I did] everything. I was the lab boy. I held the animals when they wanted animals injected, I made up any solutions they wanted, I helped to make apparatus that was required, I did almost everything for them. All the services and things that were there. And then in my spare time, I used to dust the lab, every morning, the lab had to be dusted every morning. And once a week all the shelves had to be cleared and bottles taken off.”

Len Ward (1913-2007) worked at the NIMR from 1928 to 1976.

Len Ward (1913-2007) worked at the NIMR from 1928 to 1976.

The limited number of ‘A’ positions caused increasing resentment. Staff could be stuck at the same point on the salary scale for many years effectively waiting for dead men’s shoes for promotion into the restricted technical ‘A’ grade.

From the Royal Navy to HMS MRC

The contingencies of the Second World War (WW2) wrought many changes. Technicians called up to serve in specialist technical capacities at home and overseas recognised that they had valued skills and experience; those who remained at the NIMR also realised their value. Den Busby recalls how his boss at the NIMR wanted him back in London while he was serving in the Royal Navy in 1944: “Sir Christopher Andrewes applied to the Navy for me to be released, you see, which they wouldn’t do. So they seconded me to the MRC. So I received a draft chit to ‘HMS MRC’, with Andrewes as my Commanding Officer.”

Women began to enter the labs in larger numbers to replace the missing men and communal duties, such as fire-watching and sandbagging the institute, helped break down social distinctions between technicians and scientific staff. Resentment about the ‘A’ posts was temporarily resolved in 1944 with the help of the Association of Scientific Workers (AScW) which proposed an intermediate A/B grade. But there was still discontent about working conditions, including hours of work and the necessity to ‘sign in’ by 9am every morning, irrespective of how late work had been finished the night before.

Equality develops

Sandbagging the NIMR during WW2 helped break down social distinctions between staff (please see copyright disclaimer below.)

Sandbagging the NIMR during WW2 helped break down social distinctions between staff (please see copyright disclaimer below.)

The coming of the NHS brought some major changes. Medically-qualified NIMR research staff were given automatic parity with the better-paid NHS clinical staff. The AScW successfully campaigned to achieve comparability with NHS staff for non-medically qualified and technical staff, in late 1950.

The expansion of the NIMR into a new building at Mill Hill, and the increase in numbers of technicians, prompted other contentious issues to be addressed. In the past, technical staff had been made to wear brown lab coats while scientific staff donned white coats. Now all staff were permitted to wear white lab coats, and technicians were allowed to have their names as authors on scientific papers.

Time off was approved for technicians to attend career-developing training courses and the signing-in book was abolished. These changes all contributed to the growing ‘professionalisation’ of laboratory technicians — and the concept of the ‘lab boy’ was dispelled for good.

Tilli Tansey

This article was first published in the Autumn 2013 issue of Network.

For a modern-day perspective on being a technician, take a look at our Q&A with an animal technician at MRC Harwell.

The copyright for the sandbagging and lab images from the NIMR is unknown. Every effort has been made to obtain permission from copyright holders to reproduce this material. Owing to the age of this content, and given the resources available to us, this hasn’t always been possible or practicable. We have acted in good faith at all times and any queries relating to the copyright of this content should be referred to corporate@headoffice.mrc.ac.uk 

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