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Behind the picture: Laying the foundations of molecular medicine

Professor Sir David Weatherall laid the last paving slab during construction of the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford 25 years ago, marking the completion of the new unit. Bryony Graham looks into the remarkable career of a man who, aged 80, can still be found at his desk in the institute which now bears his name.

The topping-out ceremony (Image copyright: The Oxford Times)

The topping-out ceremony (Image copyright: The Oxford Times)

This photograph, taken in 1988, shows Professor Sir David Weatherall, mallet in hand, ‘topping out’ the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford. The institute had been set up to focus on what he described as “what was rather hopefully called molecular haematology”.

At the time, the relationship between understanding how cells work at the most fundamental level and developing new medical treatments had not been fully appreciated: scientists in the lab and doctors in the clinic remained two different species.

Today, the institute is known the world over for its research, and this year Professor Weatherall was awarded the American Society of Haematology’s highest honour for “his visionary translational research leadership” ― not bad for a man who started his scientific career running lab equipment from a car battery in rural South-East Asia.

Weatherall was born and raised in Liverpool, where he started his medical training in the shadow of the Second World War in 1950. Obliged to do a stint in the army but determined to avoid conflict, he was posted to a children’s hospital in Singapore as a junior medical specialist. Sent to a small border town a year later, Weatherall came across a young girl who was being kept alive by blood transfusions, but whose condition had baffled medics. A technique to analyse proteins in the blood using blocks of potato starch and an electric current had just been published, and was beginning to be used to look at blood protein levels in patients with anaemia. He rigged up some simple lab equipment using starch, filter papers and car batteries, and diagnosed the child with a red blood cell disorder called beta thalassemia.

After completing his obligatory two years in the military, Weatherall moved to the US where he continued to work on the molecular basis of diseases affecting red blood cells. In the mid-1960’s he and his colleagues John Clegg and Mike Naughton published a study showing that an imbalance in key proteins in red blood cells causes various forms of anaemia. Within five years these findings had formed the basis of a prenatal test for blood disorders, and the technique is still used today.

Despite being decorated with a plethora of medical and scientific accolades, Weatherall’s focus has always been on his research. He refused a leaving party when he retired as a Governor of the Wellcome Trust in 2000 and instead used the money to equip a haematology unit in a Sri Lankan hospital. Despite turning 80 earlier this year, he can still be found working in the same building in Oxford which he helped to fund, build and maintain.

And so, as a scientist working in what is now known as the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, I raise my pipette to an inspirational scientist, whose dedication to improving clinical research in the developing world continues to push forward the field of molecular medicine to this day.

Bryony Graham

The Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine is part-funded by the MRC and is a strategic alliance between the MRC and the University of Oxford. The MRC Human Immunology Unit and the MRC Molecular Haematology Unit are part of the institute.

 

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