Behind the picture: Sneezing for Britain
As it turns 100, the MRC National Institute for Medical Research has a lot to be proud of, not least some of its contributions to both World Wars. Here Julie Clayton, author of a new history of the institute, looks back on Tommy Work and the unusual role he played in preventing the spread of infectious disease in WWII.
It was the sneeze that was seen throughout the UK ― in a government poster campaign during World War II that warned against the spread of infectious organisms. The man whose nasal droplets dispersed so well was Tommy Work, a biochemist at the MRC’s National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), who found the whole episode highly embarrassing.
This photograph has come to light during a search of the NIMR’s archives for a celebration of the institute’s centenary in 2014, and is published in a book of the institute’s history, A Century of Science for Health.
Tommy Work came as a postdoctoral fellow to the original location of NIMR in Hampstead in 1938, to work with chemist Harold King on the development of synthetic analogues of the drug quinine to improve the treatment of malaria.
By chance, one of these compounds caused Work to sneeze. This came to the attention of his institute colleague, Robert Bourdillon, who persuaded Work to become an experimental subject.
Bourdillon was part of the MRC’s Air Hygiene Unit, set up to investigate and minimise the risk of disease transmission in crowded spaces such as the underground air raid shelters. To understand just how far the mucous aerosol could travel, Bourdillon photographed Work in mid-sneeze using ultraviolet light.
“The result was that all over London there were thousands of pictures of me sneezing. The most dreadful pictures,” said Work in an interview for the Biochemical Society in 1991. He continued, “Fortunately I’d sneezed so violently that I was barely recognisable and only one person came and said is that you? It really was quite embarrassing.”
Another team member was James Lovelock, now famous for his influence on the environmental movement. In his autobiography, Homage to Gaia, Lovelock recalled the words of the poster campaign, “Coughs and sneezes spread diseases, trap the germs in your hankerchievses.”
Work assisted Lovelock and others in the Air Hygiene Unit in attempts to control the spread of bacteria in air raid shelters ― which the government had feared could lead to a serious epidemic. “We spent evenings going down into air raid shelters and vapourising various potential bacteriocidal agents and seeing what the reaction of the people in the bunks was,” recalled Work, who went on to be a leading scientist at NIMR.