Fighting the cold war: David Tyrrell and the common cold

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By | From the Collections

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.

Flier for common cold trial

PP/TYR/A/2/3/1: Circulars, information sheets and questionnaires sent to volunteers (1954-1974). Image credit: Elena Carter

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.

Circular for common cold trial

PP/TYR/A/2/3/1: Circulars, information sheets and questionnaires sent to volunteers (1954-1974). Image credit: Elena Carter

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.

Flier for common cold trials

PP/TYR/A/2/3/1: Circulars, information sheets and questionnaires sent to volunteers (1954-1974). Image credit: Elena Carter

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.

The archive can be searched on our library catalogues using the reference PP/TYR. An oral history of the history of the common cold unit is available at the British Library Sound Archive.

Author: Elena Carter, Project Archivist at the Wellcome Library

Elena Carter

Elena Carter

Tavistock Institute of Human Relations Archivist, based at the Wellcome Library. Working on a project to catalogue, make accessible and promote the rich and vast archive of TIHR, documenting 70 years of the Institute’s contribution to the evolution of applied social science. I like biscuits with my tea, swimming outdoors, and post-war architecture. I also like elephants. @elenacarter17

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12 comments on Fighting the cold war: David Tyrrell and the common cold
  • History of Modern Biomedicine Research Group


    Those intrigued by this account of David Tyrrell’s papers might be interested in reading more about the work of the Common Cold Unit, its staff, and the volunteers who were the “guinea pigs” for his research. Dr Tyrrell, along with other luminaries such as Dr James Lovelock (now better known for the ‘Gaia Hypothesis’), participated in the Wellcome Witness Seminar ‘The MRC Common Cold Unit’, available to download as a free .pdf:

    They recall the fascinating early history of the unit, and the ground breaking work on viruses, outlined above. The original tapes, transcripts and additional correspondence from this meeting are also deposited in the Wellcome Library (GC/253).

  • Frank Norman


    A couple of things to add.

    As implied in the previous comment, the Common Cold Unit was an MRC research establishment. For many years it was formally part of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, and was started by Christopher Andrewes, head of Bacteriology and Virus Research at NIMR.

    According to the MRC Annual Report for 1945-8 the CCU at that time was closely integrated with NIMR:

    Laboratory work is carried out largely at Hampstead but also at Salisbury, where three members of the team reside. The Hampstead workers pay frequent visits to Salisbury, one or more of them being present during part of each clinical trial.

    (NIMR was first located at Hampstead, then moved to Mill Hill in 1950).

    ‘Ownership’ of the CCU transferred in 1970 to the newly-established MRC Clinical Research Centre. David Tyrrell was Deputy Director of CRC for some years.

    A large quantity of archives of the CCU are still held at NIMR, and further material relevant to the history of CCU may be found in the main NIMR archives too.

  • Jill Choppin


    Just to say me and m ex husband went to this unit it was like a holiday to us we went in the 80s

  • Elena Carter

    Elena Carter


    Jill – how lovely to hear. It seems a lot of volunteers did treat it very much like a free holiday! Did you ever catch a cold while you were there?!

    This oral history project on the MRC CCU might also be of interest:

  • Leigh Riley


    Went 5 times in 1963, 1966, 1967, 1968 and 1970. Caught only one very minor infection. Met a girl there and got engaged later. Courted by telephone in tge evenings. Many long walks, great countryside, always good company.

  • Andrew Ross


    What happy memories this evokes. My late wife and I went at least three times in the mid-1980s, and enjoyed it hugely. The morning saline nasal washout left us clear-headed all day and the three hearty hot meals a day, delivered to our door were superb.
    I can remember sitting out in deckchairs sunbathing in February on one of our visits.

  • graham webster


    I was there twice in the seventies and once in the eighties then received my 3 times was an enjoyable experience.alas i lost my badge in a removal.happy times.

  • Alison Williams


    I went there three times in the seventies. The first two occasions were to give me the space to read and make mobiles. The third time was enable me to write my dissertation for my B.Ed. I would have no distractions as I penned almost 9,000 words about Philip Larkin. It was the perfect place for me to do that. I never caught a cold. I did get my degree, thanks to being able to isolate myself. What jolly times! I wonder how many other students used it for similar purposes.

  • John Roxburgh


    Like most people travelling from Scotland, we used this as our summer holiday in the mid early 80’s, also used the opportunity to see family in Salisbury, many happy memories, need to speak to my sister who I am sure has loads of pics from the units. Should set up a facebook page for all ex participants to share pics and stories (or is there one already 🙂

  • Elena Carter

    Elena Carter


    So nice to hear all of these memories about happy stays at the common cold unit…come for a trip down memory lane and look through Tyrrell’s archive at Wellcome – the papers are fascinating!

  • Peter Malone


    Myself and my new wife (married in ’83) could only afford this as our annual holiday in ’84 and ’85. We absolutely loved it! the food was great, the staff were great and the countryside was stunning. I remember catching a big brown trout in the chalk stream down the lane and the chef cleaned and cooked it for us instead of the “normal” meal. Neither of us got a cold in either of the times we went, in fact I remember being told I’d been given no virus (placebo) and then a drug called interferon… something of a hopeful wonderdrug of the time. I never got a cold for about another five years… I was so sad when it closed down, but by then our kids had come along….

  • Graeme Innes-Johnstone


    Dear Elena,

    My wife Sandi and I met as volunteers at the CCU on the 8th August, 1988 (8-8-88); thirteen days later we agreed to get married and were wed on the 24th September. Sadly Sandi died in 2014, but by them we had been together for twenty-six years.

    I have here a box of matches from the unit which says on the side “Relax while helping others”.


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