1913 MRC set up to tackle tuberculosis
In June 1913 a fledgling Medical Research Committee held its first meeting, to oversee a new national scheme for health insurance which would provide sanatorium treatment for tuberculosis (TB) and carry out research comparing TB in animals and humans. The committee evolved into the Medical Research Council, overseeing a national fund for medical research amounting to £57,000 per year, equivalent to £4 million today.
Download Heroes of Health, a picture book for school children about how the MRC was formed.
1916 Rickets caused by lack of Vitamin D
Sir Edward Mellanby discovered that rickets, a painful and deforming bone disease, is caused by lack of vitamin D and can be treated with cod liver oil. Sir Edward later went on to become Secretary of the MRC.
These findings were confirmed by one of the founders of the MRC, Dame Hariette Chick, whose research showed that children who were either given cod liver oil or allowed to play outside in the sunshine could be cured of rickets (the body produces Vitamin D in response to sunlight).
1923 Early studies of rare diseases
Sir Archibald Garrod, a member of the MRC Council from 1923 to 1928, was a pioneer in the field of metabolic diseases. In 1902 he discovered the rare genetic disorder alkaptonuria. This disorder causes bones to turn black and brittle, leading to early joint degeneration. Whereas alkaptonuria affects around 80 people in the UK, it is actually a severe form of osteoarthritis, which affects eight million. His first book, The Incidence of Alkaptonuria: a Study in Chemical Individuality (1902) was the first published account of a case of recessive inheritance in humans. In 1923, his studies on alkaptonuria and other rare diseases were published in a book, Inborn Errors of Metabolism.
Learn more about rare diseases (PDF, 600KB).
1929 Nobel for discovering the importance of vitamins
Studying the diet of rats, Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins found that they would only grow well if he supplemented their diet with milk, which led him to discover essential nutrients for growth and health, now known as vitamins. Before this research, many believed that diet-linked illnesses such as scurvy in sailors, were caused by a toxic substance in foods rather than a deficiency in the diet.
Sir Frederick won a Nobel Prize for his discovery.
1930 to 1949 Clinical trials to treat bacterial and viral diseases
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s MRC scientists carried out pioneering clinical trials to find new treatments for several illnesses caused by infection, including meningitis, pneumonia, septicaemia and hepatitis.
1933 Discovery of the influenza virus
MRC scientists proved that influenza is caused by a virus rather than a bacterium, after studying ferrets in their laboratory which had caught the illness from researchers.
1936 Discovery of the two types of diabetes
Sir Harold Himsworth (MRC Secretary between 1949 and 1968) showed that there are two types of diabetes, a disease caused by lack of a hormone called insulin. Type 1 diabetes, or ‘insulin-sensitive’, develops when insulin-producing cells have been destroyed. ‘Insulin-insensitive’, or type 2 diabetes, develops when the body is unable to produce enough insulin, or when the hormone does not work properly (known as insulin resistance). In 1936, Sir Harold published a paper describing a test to distinguish between these two types.
A special edition of Diabetic Medicine was dedicated to him in 2011, 75 years on from his discovery.
1936 Nerve impulses are transmitted by chemicals
Professor Otto Loewi and Sir Henry Dale, Director of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) 1928 to 1932, showed that nerve impulses are transmitted by chemical signals, and he identified and isolated the first neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. When two nerve cells meet end to end, there is a gap between them called a synapse. Neurotransmitters, released from the end of one nerve, flow across this gap to the other nerve. This is how one nerve cell communicates with another, and is the basis of how nerve cells are connected in networks in the body. The pair won a Nobel prize for this work.
1937 Safety of rationing confirmed
As the threat of world war loomed in 1937, MRC-funded scientists Dr Elsie Widdowson and Professor Robert McCance carried out self-experimentation to test the safety of food rationing. Found to be in good health at the end of three months of living on strictly rationed food, their study results were secretly passed to the War Cabinet who were reassured that rationing would be safe, should it be required. Dr Widdowson made many important contributions to nutrition research over her career, including a detailed study on the constituents of common foods carried out during World War II which is still used by nutrition researchers today.