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Studies on alpha thalassemia in the tropics


Getting funding and moving to a new laboratory
David Weatherall Scientist
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It became clear, once Kay had arrived and we were expanding in the malaria field, and getting really into the cell biology of malaria, that there was not going to be enough space, and all sorts of other departments in clinical school were starting to see the importance of this new technology. So by the mid '80s it was clear to me that we’d have to do something, and it was just the time when there was a research building, on the John Radcliffe new site, it was the Nuffield Research building which had been the famous foetal physiologists building, Geoffry Dawes, and he was retiring, and Oxford University decided that they would close it. They couldn’t afford to keep a research building, so I thought, well, what the heck, why don’t we try to make an institute, a small institute of, for people to work with a mixture of kind of, basic scientists, PHDs, and medics, working on the same problem, where both can learn off each other, because one of the problems I found in the early '80s was that there were not many places where young people, young medics who were bright and motivated, could go and learn this new kind of molecular technology. They could go to Cambridge, some of them went to the LMB, but there was, the atmosphere there was slightly different, and you obviously, if you’re primarily focused on medical research, you would like to go in a place where the, however basic the work was, it was somewhat sited in that direction, and so I put it, this suggestion, up to the university and we went on fundraising. The MRC, Jim Gowans was the secretary at that time, were quite enthusiastic, but didn’t have enough money. So we went out to Wolfson and then the university, the Abraham Fund in the university gave us some money, and we were just about enough to get a one floored building, and so they sent, the MRC sent a external review group to see if this should be done, consisting of Sydney Brenner, and a few other, well, not quite but almost equally terrifying people, and Sydney gave me hell actually. He’d given me hell several times. I remember when I talked at a meeting in Cambridge about the globin synthesis stuff in the very early days, he came up to me afterwards and he said- well, you know, if we wanted to, we could solve these problems at the LMB in a few weeks for you. But they didn’t want to, and they couldn’t have done actually, at that time. But he, I think old Sydney was quite sceptical of these doctors mucking about in the laboratory. In the end, actually, when I wrote to him after he got the Nobel Prize a few years ago, and reminded him of this, he was quite cross, he wrote back and said- I never gave you a bad time, you have got me to thank for that building, the MRC didn’t want to do it, and I persuaded them to do it. Anyway, whatever happened it was done, and then right at the last minute, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, as it was then, Walter Bodmer came along and said they’d like a bit, and they put in a lot of money, so we had a second floor. And so we opened it, and the kind of founder groups in there were, there was, obviously there was our own group, and then there was, we’d got a very strong immunology group together by then, with McMichael and Townsend, and Kay Davis’ group settled in there as well. We got a malaria group, Chris Newbold, and he, Chris is a molecular parasitologist basically, so we, we’d been able to develop that, and then our new Professor of Paediatrics, Richard Moxon, who had a long training in microbial genetics at Hopkins, and he was head of Paediatric Infectious Diseases, so he, he brought his group. And there were a few smaller groups, and then of course at the top floor we had a very strong cancer group from the ICRF, with Adrian Harris, and others. So that’s how it took off, and I, obviously some of the people came and went, which is only right in a place like that, there’s been quite a lot of turnover. I think overall, looking back, that at that time it probably succeeded in its objectives, because we did train an awful lot of young people in there, some of them have stayed on obviously, and some of them have left. Was there anything about the design of the building and the way it was grouped or put together that made it work? or- Well, I think, but this is a, purely a personal feeling, no other people have mentioned it, that we had a large tea room, I’d picked this up partly, well, partly from its absence in any lab in the States, I mean, it was thought kind of indecent to have a tea break in America, but they do have one at the LMB in Cambridge, and it seemed to me that if we could produce a large staff area, and if we could make some kind of rules about not drinking in laboratory, I mean, not drinking coffee and stuff in the labs so much as in this tea room, and produce some simple food for them, that this might be a way of bringing groups together. And I think a lot of people have, I think there was a lot of interaction in there, and still is, actually. When I retired we raised a bit more money and have expanded the building now, but we’ve kept that, and the granting bodies were furious, all this wasted space, you know, people drinking tea, God. But I, I think it’s vital actually. And then of course, the obvious things, like mutual cross seminars that everybody goes to, and so on, and a lot, I think quite a lot of cross-talking went on.

British Scientist Sir David Weatherall (1933-2018) was a world renowned expert on blood diseases, in particular thalassaemias, and used his expertise to help control and prevent these diseases in developing countries. He founded the Institute of Molecular Medicine at Oxford in 1989 and was knighted in 1987.

Listeners: Marcus Pembrey

Marcus Pembrey, now Emeritus, was Professor of Paediatric Genetics at the Institute of Child Health, University College London and consultant clinical geneticist at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children London. He is a visiting Professor at the University of Bristol UK, where he was the Director of Genetics within the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children until 2006. A past president of the European Society of Human Genetics, he is also the founding Chairman of the Progress Educational Trust.

Duration: 6 minutes, 56 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2007

Date story went live: 02 June 2008