A Century of Science for Health

A new book tells the story behind the scientific achievements of the National Institute for Medical Research, revealed through testimonies, photos and archive materials.

It’s quite the norm for a scientific institution to boast of its achievements but rarely do the stories behind the science come to light – stories of the people upon whose efforts the successes depend, and the challenges they face, both personal and professional.

The National Institute for Medical Research is 100 years old on 1 July 2014, and is justly proud of a multitude of advances in biomedical research since its inception in 1914. These are reflected in publications in top scientific journals, major international prizes and awards and highly sought-after memberships of esteemed societies.

Mount Vernon
NIMR’s first home at the Mount Vernon building in Hampstead.

For the first time, however, as part of its centenary celebrations, NIMR is revealing many of the events and personalities that led to these achievements – and to its survival – in the book A Century of Science for Health. The book contains testimonies from past and present staff and is richly illustrated with previously unpublished photographs and information drawn from the Institute’s own extensive archives. It provides insights into the atmosphere and changing attitudes at NIMR and gives a compelling account of what it takes to create – and hold together – an institute over 100 years.

Champion or victim?

As an organisation, NIMR has had to adapt to many external pressures including two world wars, funding cuts and political demands. Its staff have uprooted from Hampstead to Mill Hill, and dealt with the threat of relocation and closure. They have had to navigate between personal ambition and the expectations of successive Institute Directors and its parent body, the Medical Research Council.

NIMR, Mill Hill
The NIMR building in Mill Hill, London

Institute scientists include Nobel prizewinners such as neuroscientist Henry Dale, chemist John Cornforth, biochemist Archer Martin and immunologist Peter Medawar, inventors James Lovelock and Heinz Wolff, and the physiologist Griffith Pugh, who made the conquest of Mount Everest possible in 1953. Scientific breakthroughs include the discoveries of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and of the flu virus, the invention of gas liquid chromatography, the development of low temperature preservation of sperm (cryobiology), and the discovery of the gene that determines male sex development. Practical applications of NIMR research include drugs used in anaesthesia and childbirth, the insulin infusion pump and the alcohol breathalyser.

A Century of Science for Health is written and edited by science writer Julie Clayton, together with key contributions from past and present NIMR scientists and other staff. It reveals the heady mix of inspiration, chance opportunities and frustration that underpins many of the achievements of this world-famous Institution. It also comes at a poignant moment: in 2015, the Institute will cease to exist, as it transfers to become part of the new Francis Crick Institute.

The book

The book comprises 22 chapters, covering 100 years of developments and covering many of the scientific achievements. A summary of chapters gives an overview of its contents.

The book is available in PDF format on this website. Additional material will also be published here over the next few months.