Free 10 Day Autumn or Winter Break: You may not win a Nobel Prize, but you could help find a cure for the common cold
In 1946, the Common Cold Unit (CCU) opened its doors to volunteers for a ten-day, all expenses paid stay in the Salisbury countryside. Aside from providing the general public with a free holiday, the purpose of these trials was to examine the cause and transmission of colds.
Dr David Tyrrell, whose papers have just been catalogued (PP/TYR), was the head of the CCU from 1962. Working at the unit, Tyrrell significantly advanced public understanding about the common cold; Tyrrell first discovered that the common cold was caused by viruses, and that there was not one single common cold virus, but that instead, colds were caused by many different viruses. In fact, during his time working at the unit, Tyrrell discovered over 100 types of rhinoviruses.
At the CCU, Tyrrell ran an on-going programme of volunteer trials alongside laboratory work, in order to examine the clinical characteristics of the common cold, and gain an understanding of the mechanics of how colds are transmitted.
The Salisbury site, an ex-American Red Cross Hospital which fell out of use after WWII, was considered the ideal location to carry out research into the common cold. In the isolation of the Salisbury countryside, scientists could examine volunteers in quarantine, closely observing and monitoring the effect of colds. They were also able to isolate and grow rhinoviruses in the onsite laboratories, which were administered to volunteers through nasal drops.
Only one third of patients on any given trial were administered with a cold virus; others received a placebo, as part of the double-blind experiment. The results were then meticulously recorded through routine medical examinations, as well as the perhaps more dubiously scientific method of collecting used tissues from volunteers.
The unusual set up of the trial received substantial media attention, and the CCU was often discussed on radio and TV. Through press releases and interviews, the staff of the CCU pitched the trial as an ideal budget holiday, claiming it was ‘the best package holiday anywhere’. Journalists with their punning quills at hand described the trial as a ‘holiday not to be sneezed at’, with ‘cold comfort’ provided.
As a result of this enthusiasm, the programme was often over-subscribed, and volunteers were queuing up to take part in the unique trial. Many of the CCU volunteers took part more than once, and some even went on honeymoons to the site, or used it as an opportunity for quiet study in the CCU library.
Volunteers were kept in strict isolation from the outside world and from others taking part in the trial. But as one CCU press release puts it, ‘isolation is not as bad as it seems. All the flats are connected by phone so you can talk to that smashing blonde in the next flat’.
Another volunteer information sheet in the collection warns that ‘chatting up other volunteers in a different flat can only be by telephone, or at a very long range outside.’ Romances did bloom despite the isolation and blocked noses; on his ninth visit to the unit, one guitar-strumming volunteer wooed a neighbouring oboist by playing duets at 30 feet. Love in a cold climate.
Between 1946 and 1990, when the CCU closed, over 20,000 volunteers participated in the cold trial. During this time, the unit discovered how and why colds were transmitted and examined the impact of colds on an international scale. Despite these successes, no cure for the common cold was found.
In his brilliantly-named memoir Cold Wars: The Fight against the Common Cold, Tyrrell writes: ‘of course it is the failure to find a cure which has hit most strongly upon the public consciousness’. Once the unit discovered that colds were caused by hundreds of different viruses, it quickly became clear that it would be impossible to vaccinate against each of these. Begrudgingly, we have come to accept today that colds are something that we just have to put up with.
When the unit opened after World War II, colds were considered a significant and costly problem; an economic burden which amounted to weeks of labour lost to workers sniffling into their chicken soup. However, over the course of Tyrrell’s career, research emphasis shifted away from the domestic common cold and cough, towards more life-threatening and serious illnesses.
Alongside his CCU work, Tyrrell became heavily involved in the work of the World Health Organisation, working to eliminate the high mortality rate caused by infectious diseases, such as acute respiratory infections and diarrhoea in developing countries. With the advent of HIV/AIDS, and the outbreak of BSE in the 1990s, the latter part of Tyrrell’s career was spent examining more deadly diseases.
The papers in this collection cover the span of Tyrrell’s career, including:
- research at the CCU
- epidemiological studies, including studies of isolated island communities
- his work for the World Health Organisation
- involvement in the BSE epidemic and subsequent public inquiry.
The majority of the papers relate to Tyrrell’s work at the CCU, and include correspondence from the general public providing cold cures and advice, correspondence with other scientists, laboratory notes, and other matters related to the running of the CCU.
Author: Elena Carter, Project Archivist at the Wellcome Library