The College decided by the 1880s that as well as focussing on regulation of the profession, they should also pursue a stronger line in research.  By 1887 they had formalised this idea, agreeing to establish a laboratory ‘for the prosecution of Original Research’. 

The laboratory was split into the areas of Bacteriological, Chemical, and Histological and Experimental, and researchers came from a wide variety of institutions, and included veterinary pathologists, chemists and zoologists, as well as physicians.

The College laboratory. (1890s)

Medical research

The laboratory was broad in its scope, and eventually drew workers from as far as Lithuania and Hong Kong, received specimens not just from Scotland and England, but from Kansas, Cairo, Legos and Teheran, and collaborated on projects with researchers in America, India and Australia.

They defined their medical remit in the broadest sense – one Superintendent emphasising ‘the rejection of the narrow and utilitarian aspect of research’.  This enabled them to study areas including the workings of the stomach of the narwhal, botanical histology, salmon migration (on behalf of the Scottish Fisheries Board), and the nature of Malayan arrow poisons.

Laboratory equipment. (1890s)

They carried out research into conditions and diseases such as leukemia, anaemia, haemophilia, foetal death, meningitis, cancer, deaf mutism, asthma, insanity, and pneumonia, and also some more unusual conditions such as a small outbreak of epidemic plague in Glasgow in 1900, and a case of leprosy in Edinburgh.

War work

In the First World War the laboratory produced stock vaccines on a large scale for both army and civilians, including anti-typhoid and anti-dysentria.  They carried out naval pathological work, did research on trench frostbite and bacteriology of wounds, and studied methods of combating poisonous gas.

Social medicine

The wider social side of medical research was also not forgotten – the College carrying out work on the poisonous air in coal mines (due to a particular fungus growing on the ceilings of certain mines), and investigations into the diet of the labouring classes of Scotland, purity of city water supplies, and pollution (in terms of toxic deposits found in the Clyde and Tyne rivers).  They also did comparative work on urban and rural mortalities and a detailed comparison of vital statistics between Scotland, England, Wales and Sweden.

The laboratory carried out research on various aspects of industrial disease – ventilation in factories (particularly with regards to benzene poisoning), lead poisoning among ship builders, and blood changes in connection with the trade processes of ‘glazing’.

Nutrition and health

In the late 19th century the laboratory, like much of Victorian society generally, was interested in nutrition and lifestyle.  They did research into different types of vegetarian diets, studies including one gentleman who was convinced that the less a man ate the stronger he became.  To prove this he confined himself to a diet of bananas and hot water, although after 5 days he ventured that he might actually rather like some bread and butter.

They also studied the diets of students in five different residential halls at the University of Edinburgh (coming to the conclusion, perhaps unsurprisingly, that they were somewhat lacking in a balanced diet).  In 1900 the laboratory carried out some possibly more immediately useful research for the government on the nutritional qualities of ‘Famine Foods’ (uncultivated plants used as food by the Bhils during a recent famine in India).

Diagnosis and reporting

The laboratory was never intended to be just for the use of College fellows, but was to be made available to medical practitioners more widely.  From the outset the investigation of patient specimens was part of their remit, as well as the often more esoteric scientific research.

The reporting side though, particularly as the College did not charge for this service, just kept on growing.  At that time, as there was no National Health Service, the laboratory was often the first port of call for doctors – not just in Scotland, but often for England and Wales too, and even overseas.  In 1890 the laboratory received fifty specimens for examination.  By 1898 the figure was over a thousand, and the figure steadily increased year on year – by 1948 reaching an impressive 30,909.

This was stretching the resources of the laboratory to the limit, and greatly impacted on the amount of actual research that could be carried out.  The only way that seemed practical to reduce this was to instigate charging, but there was understandably a concern that this would result in a service which was effectively only for the rich.  On this, it was emphasised by the College that ‘no limitation be made regarding the facilities for such examination to certain classes of citizens’.

Although unfortunately it was increasingly clear that there was a fairly high level of ‘laboratory abuse’ taking place.  Because the service was completely free, many specimens were sent which any competent practitioner should have been able to deal with themselves, there were other investigations which were requested which were clearly of no practical use, and some where the doctor had bothered to record so little information that any conclusion would be close to useless. 

In order to keep the laboratory running a charge was eventually introduced for local authorities, although a free service for patients and practitioners in need continued.

Closure

The wide ranging work of the laboratory, both in providing patient diagnoses for general practitioners, and carrying out wide ranging medical research, came to a halt in 1950.  The establishment of the National Health Service in 1948 signalled its end – the reporting was to be carried out elsewhere, and the research was not considered sustainable on its own.

The ending of the original research the laboratory carried out was a great loss, with one previous laboratory Superintendent writing:

‘That in the brave new world…no place could be found for an institution so long established, so widely known and with so high a reputation may seem strange to us, and to future generations perhaps inexplicable.’

 

Author: Daisy Cunynghame, Archivist at the Royal College of Physicians

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