Views & Reviews Medical Classics

War on Disease: a History of the Lister Institute

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d8209 (Published 30 December 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d8209
  1. Jonathan Chick, honorary professor, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh
  1. jonathan.chick{at}gmail.com

The Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, established as a research institute in 1891, was the first medical research charity in the United Kingdom (www.lister-institute.org.uk/about.html). In this book the institute’s scientists refer to the Lister as a way of life, “a habit of thought.”

Staff took alarming risks in pursuit of science. In 1905, plague in India killed half a million people. The Lister expedition asked people to hand in dead rats, with a quarter of an anna paid per rat—a now defunct unit of currency equal to 1/16 of a rupee. A street map was drawn linking infected rats to homes of deceased citizens. But how was bacillus pestis transmitted? Not by a rat bite. The answer came when a Lister worker put her arm into the flea cage and saw the height to which they leapt.

Joseph Arkwright (great great grandson of Richard Arkwright, who mechanised 18th century cotton manufacture) joined the institute in 1906, and studied typhus by letting himself be bitten by infected lice. He survived, unlike two others studying this fatal illness—H T Ricketts and S J M Prowazek, who are eponymised in the protozoal agent Rickettsia prowazekii. It was in studying typhoid that Arkwright discovered that bacterial species are not immutable but can mutate.

The final test for the cause of trachoma depended on the Lister virologist, Lester Collier, wiping the eyes of two blind volunteers with culture from infected Gambian victims. Collier made the critical contribution in eradicating another global scourge, smallpox. His indestructible freeze dried vaccine travelled to the most distant and inhospitable parts of the globe (BMJ 2011;342:d3084, doi:10.1136/bmj.d3084).

As well as Arkwright, the institute recruited another scientist with cotton connections— Harriette Chick, whose forebears had made Honiton lace, prized throughout 19th century Europe. Chick was one of the first women to graduate in science from London University. “Two members of the scientific staff implored the Director not to commit the folly of appointing a woman to the staff,” but she was backed by a previous superintendent of the institute, Charles Sherrington (who had recently given the first ever clinical dose of diphtheria antitoxin, saving the life of his acutely ill nephew). Chick demonstrated the irreversibility of coagulation of proteins, showing that death of bacteria by heat or phenols was not loss of mysterious so called vital forces, but a researchable physicochemical reaction.

The first world war spurred investigation into other diseases of poverty. Rickets was attributed by Glasgow physicians and physiologists to overcrowding, lack of exercise, and poor hygiene; the Viennese hypothesised infection; whereas puppy experiments at the Lister Institute suggested nutritional deficiency. In 1919, Chick went to Vienna where Clemens von Pirquet was worried that, even in his well run hospital, rickets could develop. Diets were tested, but the first year results nonplussed the team. In year two, they realised that taking cots outside in fine weather had been a confounding factor. The cure was diet and light; direct sunshine could heal deformed bones. These accounts show serendipity playing its part in medical discovery. But chance favours the prepared mind, and the daring in these unsentimental, unembellished stories helps us not to take for granted what has gone before, inspiring us to be curious.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:d8209

Footnotes

  • War on Disease: a History of the Lister Institute

  • A book by Harriette Chick, Margaret Hume, Marjorie MacFarlane

  • First published 1971

  • Competing interests: Harriette Chick was a first cousin of the author’s grandfather.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.