The Blood Group Unit – a world stage for research …

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By | Digital Developments, From the Collections

A woman studying blood samples

A BGU technician at work

To mark World Blood Donor day, on 14th June, consider the work of some pioneers in blood research – the Medical Research Council Blood Group Unit (BGU). Robert Race (founder of the BGU) and his wife/assistant, Ruth Sanger, effectively opened up the world of serology to an international stage. Both the MRC Blood Group Unit archives and the personal archives of Robert Race and Ruth Sanger are held by the Wellcome Library and are available online as part of the Codebreakers: makers of modern genetics resource.

Following Karl Landsteiner and Alexander Wiener’s discovery of the Rhesus Factor (Rh) in 1940, the BGU identified the antigens that made up Rh.

Diagram with experiments of Rh dosage

Diagram of experiments with Rh dosage, 1944

Conducting such tests led to the most important discovery that the Blood Group Unit made: the anti-globulin test in 1945, a safety check that was used for cross-matching blood before transfusions.  This test, which proved both timely and crucial during the Second World War, could not have been done without the help of Arthur Mourant who worked at the Lister Insititute with Race from the 1940s. Mourant had previously idenitified the anti-E antibody within the Rhesus system.

Photograph of Robert Race, Arthur Mourant and others

Robert Race with Arthur Mourant and colleagues at the Lister Institute in the 1940s

Due to the sensitivity and confidentiality of research that the BGU conducted, some of the archive is restricted , but there is a surprising amount of photographic and research material to be found that offers a glimpse of what appears to be a well-staffed and, at times, fun research centre. Visitors from all over the world were encouraged  to witness the various research projects being undertaken at the Lister Institute.

Blood Group Unit staff

BGU staff and visitors on top of the Lister Institute, ca. 1950s

Amongst the often complex research notes within the archive, letters emerge that give a flavour of the very specialised nature of the work undertaken at BGU.  An congratulatory letter from Sir Cyril Clarke (University of Liverpool Department of Medicine and Royal College of Physicians Research Unit in SA/BGU/F.11/4) to Ruth Sanger, for instance, reveals a line of enquiry into the ‘wilderness’ of chromosomes that she located in apes and monkeys that were often ‘tied up with blood groups’ – as Cyril admitted:

it must be a tremendous job to nail them down

To view the archives online, you will need a Wellcome Library member login, or you can login with a Twitter, Facebook, Google or OpenID account. The login screen will appear when you open a digitised item from the catalogue or another webpage.



Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse is Collections Researcher at the Wellcome Library. With a background in art history, she has previously worked as Assistant Curator of the Iconographic Collections, and more recently co-curated the content within the refurbished Reading Room.

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