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Behind the picture: A formula for success

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2014 we’re remembering Dr Rosalind Venetia Pitt-Rivers, a researcher at the MRC National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) who discovered a thyroid hormone which is now used as a treatment option for thyroid diseases. Isabel Baker takes a look at this striking photograph and a scientist who was dedicated to life at the bench, and who earned worldwide recognition for doing what she loved best.

Rosalind Pitt-Rivers at the NIMR in the 1960s

Rosalind Pitt-Rivers at the NIMR in the 1960s

This photograph, taken in the 1960s, shows Rosalind ― better known to her family, friends and colleagues as ‘Ros’ ― at work in the NIMR labs where she worked for 30 years. She looks at ease in the lab, casually holding a test tube and cigarette between her fingers, as she regards the camera with a serious, confident gaze.

Ros arrived in the NIMR lab of Sir Charles Harington in 1942, which was to become a leading centre in the world for paper chromatography. Dr Archer Martin, who developed this technique for separating mixtures of substances in the 1940s, joined the NIMR in 1948*, winning the Nobel Prize in 1952. It was using these newly developed chromatography techniques that Ros discovered a new thyroid hormone, triiodothyronine (T3), with Dr Jack Gross, in 1952.

At the time, L-thryoxine (T4) was the only known thyroid hormone. Thanks to Ros and Jack’s discovery, we now know that T4 and T3 play an important role in the body’s control of metabolism. T3 is widely used to treat and diagnose thyroid diseases, such as thyroid cancer or hyperthyroidism, where thyroid hormone levels in the blood are disrupted.

Dr Jamshed Tata, a close colleague and friend of Ros, attributes her success in science to her supreme self-confidence, captured well in this arresting photo. “With an attractive personality, wit and generosity, Ros was equally at ease talking to biochemists, physiologists and clinicians. Both of her parents were from old, established English families and it was undoubtedly her aristocratic background that encouraged her self-confidence and enthusiasm for new ideas. The women on her mother’s side of the family were also well-known for their eccentricity and genius.”

Jamshed also attributes her success to the fact that, “Ros was very at ease in the company of men, in a scientific world that was then male-dominated. She once described a letter to me, written to her during World War I by a cousin (from her mother’s side of the family) which read: ‘There is nothing that a woman cannot do that a man can do’. These were powerful words for that time, and especially coming from a 12- year-old child!”

Given that her scientific career was twice interrupted ― once to marry her eccentric cousin George Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers and have a son, and secondly by World War II ― her scientific achievements are all the more impressive. Yet despite her success, her friendships and sharing knowledge with others (including her competitors) was as important to her as her own science and career.

There is no simple formula for success in scientific research. But Ros certainly proved her science mistress at Notting Hill High School wrong, who wrote in one of her reports, “I fear Rosalind will never make a chemist”.

Isabel Baker

Rosalind Pitt-Rovers published many papers and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1954. Until her retirement in 1972 she was firmly committed to researching her favourite topic of thyroid hormones.

The NIMR is 100 years old this year. See our Centenary timeline for more examples of the contribution that the NIMR has made to medical research.

*This post was updated on 10 March 2014 from ‘Dr Archer Martin developed this technique for separating mixtures of substances at the NIMR in the 1940s’ to ‘Dr Archer Martin, who developed this technique for separating mixtures of substances in the 1940s, joined the NIMR in 1948’, to reflect the fact that Dr Archer Martin developed paper chromatography before joining the NIMR in 1948.

References

  1. The Identification of 3:5:3′-L-Triiodothyronine in Human Plasma – The Lancet, 1952
  2. Rosalind Venetia Pitt-Rivers. 4 March 1907-14 January 1990 – Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 1994
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