David Galton: early pioneer in chemotherapy treatment

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By | From the Collections

The papers of David Galton (1922-2006), a pioneer of effective chemotherapy treatment for leukaemia and lymphoma, have just been catalogued at the Library. The papers span Galton’s career, documenting early research carried out into the diagnosis and classification of blood cancers.

When Galton graduated from medical school in 1942, understanding of blood cancers such as leukaemia and lymphoma was very limited. Survival rates for leukaemia patients were low, and life expectancy could be counted in days or weeks from diagnosis. Little research had been conducted into the different types of leukaemia and the possibility of drug treatment had yet to be fully explored.

Royal Marsden Hospital

Royal Marsden Hospital, London. Image credit: Phillip Perry.

Galton joined the Chester Beatty Research Institute at the Royal Marsden Hospital (later the Institute of Cancer Research) in 1947 as the hospital was at the forefront of cancer research. Under the direction of Alexander Haddow at the institute, Galton administered aminopterin to a British patient, the first individual to ever receive this treatment for leukaemia. The drug induced a remission of several months, something unheard of at the time. This exciting discovery paved the way for further drug development and research. Significantly, in the 1950s, three successful chemotherapy drugs were discovered in a programme run by Galton, Alexander Haddow, Eric Boyland, Walter Ross and George Timmis: busulphan (Myleran), chlorambucil (Leukeran), and melphalan (Alkeran). Many of the drugs discovered in these early days, or variants of them, are still used in cancer treatments today.

stick model of chloroambucil molecule

Molecular model of Chloroambucil (Leukeran). Image credit: Marina Vladivostock

During his career, Galton worked closely with the MRC, as both Chair of the Leukaemia Trials Steering Committee and Secretary of the Leukaemia Working Party. In these roles, Galton was able to oversee leukaemia trials and work with other haematologists to control and manage blood diseases. Galton also headed the MRC Leukaemia Research Unit which was soon renowned for its high standard of patient care and pioneering drug treatments. The unit was a hive of research activity, as evidenced by the MRC Leukaemia Research Unit correspondence, as well as the MRC trial proposals, reports and analyses contained in Galton’s papers.

Galton’s major achievement in the field of haematology was the classification and diagnosis of leukaemia into different sub-types. Armed with a notebook and microscope, Galton examined patient cell slides and made clinical observations, jotting down his findings for future reference. Through his meticulous observations, Galton hoped to discover links and similarities between cases.

microscopic slide of a bone marrow cells smear

Light microscope image of a bone marrow smear from a patient with lymphatic leukaemia. Image credit: Spike Walker. WI no. B0004435

This was not an isolated effort; Galton collaborated with other haematologists to pool together ideas and resources. Galton was a founder member of FAB, an international group of seven French, American and British physicians interested in the haematological differences between types of leukaemia. The group met regularly to discusses patient cases and diagnoses, comparing notes to spot clinical similarities. Galton’s papers bear witness to these early discussions on leukaemia classification through FAB reports, as well as meeting notes, minutes and correspondence.

Between 1976 and 1990, the FAB group pulled together its findings to publish a number of papers on the classification of blood cancers. These papers were of huge significance to the medical profession, creating a diagnostic framework for leukaemia and lymphoma which would be relied on by medical professionals for decades. In fact, FAB classifications are still used in diagnosis today, often in conjunction with the WHO classification system (2001). The work of Galton and FAB has meant that blood cancers can now be more easily identified and diagnosed. In real life terms, the ability to diagnose blood cancers early and more accurately has led to a better prognosis for patients, ensuring that individuals have access to the most suitable treatment programmes.

These papers were catalogued as part of a project focusing on collections associated with the Medical Research Council, to celebrate the centenary year of the MRC. The Wellcome Archives and Manuscripts collection also contains a number of other catalogued collections associated with MRC. These include:

  • the Medical Research Council Blood Group Unit (SA/BGU) – also available online as part of the Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics online resource,
  • the MRC Medical Cyclotron Unit (SA/MCU),
  • and David Tyrrell and the Common Cold Unit.

A timeline of MRC research from 1913 to 2013 can be found on their website.

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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