Clockwise from bottom left: Audrey Smith, Elsie Widdowson (from the book ‘A Scientific Partnership of 60 Years’), Mary Lyon, Kay Davies and Uta Frith (credit: Anne-Katrin Purkiss, Wellcome Images)
In this article from our most recent Network magazine, Sarah Harrop takes a look at some of the most eminent MRC-funded women scientists from the MRC’s past 100 years.
Audrey Smith: discovery of cryobiology
Known as the ‘mother of cryobiology’, Audrey Smith of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research discovered — in the early 1960s — how to store biological material at low temperature, pioneering techniques for the freezing of sperm, blood, bone marrow, corneas and many other tissues. Freezing of sperm, eggs and embryos is now a key part of many IVF programmes.
Elsie Widdowson: nutrition expert
Elsie Widdowson became highly-respected for her1946 study of the impact of poor wartime diet on those in Nazi-occupied territories, and carried out MRC-funded self-experimentation to test the safety of food rationing ahead of the outbreak of WW2. A huge body of influential nutrition research followed, including studying the importance of the nutritional content of infant diets, particularly trace vitamins and minerals in natural and artificial human milk, leading to revised UK standards for breast milk substitutes in the 1980s. Read more
This article was first published in the Spring edition of Network.
Soldiers in the trenches, 1916
The complex and destructive nature of war has been a catalyst for some of the MRC’s greatest medical discoveries over the past century. Sarah Harrop reports.
The great war: infections and ingenuity
When the First World War broke out in 1914, the MRC was barely a year old, but it reacted quickly to focus research on the national war effort. Gangrene, caused by bacteria which thrive in oxygen-free conditions such as soil, was a particular problem for men fighting in the muddy trenches of France and Belgium during WW1. This horrifying condition causes living tissue to decay and die and was responsible for many limb amputations and deaths in soldiers whose wounds had become infected. But by the eve of Armistice Day in 1918, MRC researchers had managed to develop the first serum for the prevention and cure of wound gangrene, which contained anti-toxins against all three bacteria involved.
Desperate times also fuelled ingenuity. Ships bringing home the wounded had poor sanitary conditions, but antiseptics were in short supply. With MRC funding, British chemist Dr Henry Drysdale Dakin managed to work out a cheap way to produce large quantities of an antiseptic from sea water. ‘Dakin’s Solution’ reduced secondary infections in repatriated soldiers to almost zero. Read more