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