100 years of life-changing discoveries

27 August 2014

Posted by: Richard Scrase

Category: Staff blog

100-years-of-life-changing-dis.jpgFlu is caused by a virus, maternal antibodies are passed to the infant through breast-milk, finding the first neurotransmitter, acetylcholine: just three of the discoveries made at the Medical Research Council’s National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) in the last 100 years.

The NIMR celebrates its centenary this year (2014) just a year before it will cease to exist as an independent entity and be subsumed within the new Francis Crick Institute near St Pancras, London.

To celebrate this anniversary the Institute has produced A Century of Science for Health. This book tells the story behind the scientific achievements of the National Institute for Medical Research, revealed through testimonies, photos and archive materials.

I had not thought about the evolution of animal research facilities, despite witnessing myself the changes in zebrafish facility management where hand-feeding has been largely replaced by a robot but chapter 13, Animal research and welfare soon revealed much earlier developments.

Images of rodent cages (p.204) from the 1920s to the 1940s show the development from something you might knock up at home to a recognisably modern layout with a built-in bottle and food hopper designed in 1947 by Douglas Short.

Much later, by 2002, it was NIMR technicians who invented the now ubiquitous and award winning transparent red plastic Mouse House’. Mice cannot see through the red plastic walls of this housing so feel secure and technicians can make visual checks without disturbing the mice.


I take dry animal food pellets completely for granted, but their original formulation was another area of NIMR innovation. Douglas Short and George Gammage gave their names to SG1, a high protein diet for rabbits and – when supplemented with hay and greenstuffs – for guinea-pigs. They had conducted trials and used human grade ingredients to come up with a feed that would both maintain breeding condition and have a long shelf-life. In fact it was so good that animals tended to overeat, which led in turn to the development of automated feeding systems that rationed the food.

Of course, research animals are produced for research and often scientists want batches of animals at the same time. In the 1950s Hilda Bruce began work on the synchronisation of oestrus in mice. She knew that pregnancy in mice could be blocked by replacing the stud male with a different male, even if the new male was not in sight or sound of the females, suggesting an effect mediated through smell.

To help confirm the idea Hilda asked skilled perfumers to visit NIMR and sniff pieces of cloth that had been exposed to different mouse strains.

‘The perfumers had no difficulty in distinguishing the different strains as all had a unique aroma; they even commented that four of the strains were quite similar – all of which had been bred from one original colony. They also noted that the CBA strain had a wonderful and pleasantly musky smell which could be of commercial interest in perfume manufacture!’ (p.208)


The NIMR facilities also went through a series of developments from sheds on a farm to the purpose built environmentally controlled facilities of today. The earliest animal breeding facilities were easily recognised as such and sometimes staff faced protests.

‘The old ladies used to stand outside and call out… One of our chaps was coming in one day and one of the old ladies called out “You are working for the devil”, so he said, “Well tell him to pay me more money”. And she hit him on the head with her umbrella.’(p.199)

Leavened as it is with personal anecdotes and images from the archives A Century of Science for Health is an ideal book to browse and because of the breadth of work that happened at NIMR, it gives a very good, if appropriately idiosyncratic, view of the history of science of the last century.

The whole book or individual chapters can be downloaded here: A Century of Science for Health.

A Century of Science for Health, Editor, Julie Clayton. Chapter 13: Animal research and welfare written by Alan Palmer with contributions from Kathleen Mathers.

Last edited: 29 September 2014 11:50