‘Saving the Lives of Our Dogs’

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By | From the Collections

Image of dogs from The Field magazine

The Field, 4 February 1933, supplement.

Eighty years ago, a special supplement to The Field magazine announced that the dreaded dog disease of distemper had been conquered. The conquest was the result of a vaccine developed by researchers at the Medical Research Council (MRC) and commercialised at the Wellcome Physiological Research Laboratories (WPRL) at Beckenham.

The Company Archives, held at the Wellcome Library, reveal that the translation of laboratory research into a product that could be used by veterinarians to protect dogs was fraught with problems. The success of this innovation was the result of not one-way traffic from laboratory to clinic but of multiple interactions that involved the creation and maintenance of networks with funders, veterinarians and dog owners.

Wellcome Physiological Laboratories, Beckenham

Langley Court, Beckenham. Wellcome Physiological Research Laboratories. WI no. L0041444

Unusually, the MRC research had been funded by public subscription, through a campaign led by landed elites, with monies collected from readers of The Field and Daily Telegraph.  Between 1922 and 1933, over £55,000 was subscribed, which converts to over £3 million today.  The monies funded dog distemper research at the MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) and the building of a dedicated facility at Mill Hill, from where Patrick Laidlaw and George Dunkin lead the investigations. This work was part of a new MRC programme to investigate virus diseases, spurred by the 1918-19 influenza pandemic.  Dog distemper was thought to be a good animal model, as it was also highly infectious, affected the lungs, and caused a general malaise.

After confirming that a virus caused dog distemper, Laidlaw and Dunkin produced a viral vaccine in 1927 and trialled it with selected veterinarians and dog owners.  Effective immunisation required two injections: first, with killed virus to stimulate antibody production, and then 14 days later with live virus to reinforce the immune response.  Early results were very promising and given public investment in the research, the MRC trumpeted its success, leading the Manchester Guardian observe that in November 1928 that, ‘There should a concerted wagging of tails throughout the world’s kennels at the good news for dogdom that has been announced’. It was a further year before Laidlaw and Dunkin were fully satisfied with the efficacy of their method – and then the MRC gifted their materials and protocols to WPRL.

V0027618 Sir Thomas Dalling. Photograph.

Sir Thomas Dalling. Wellcome Library no. 14116i

The WPRL team, headed by Thomas Dalling, spent time at the MRC learning vaccine and virus preparation methods and there was regular correspondence between Beckenham and Mill Hill.

Commercialisation proved difficult for a number of reasons: scaling up from laboratory practices; standardising the vaccine and virus; producing stable products; educating  veterinarians; assessing the health of dogs to be vaccinated; and managing  public expectations.  WPRL worked by producing vaccine-virus products and trialling them with their own network of veterinarians.  Between January 1929 and May 1931, the Company issued seven different products.

These products were issued free to veterinarians to trial.  Problems emerged with the protocols, the products, the responses of dogs, and the reactions of veterinarians and dog owners.  Tensions between WPRL and the MRC developed, with Dalling doubting the accuracy of some MRC work, whilst the MRC hinted that the WPRL team had not followed their methods.  Most of the modifications to the vaccine were to improve standardisation and stability, including the introduction of ‘use-by’ dates, and frozen and dried vaccines.  In 1931, WPRL trialled a wholly new protocol: simultaneous inoculation of antiserum and virus.  Laidlaw and Dunkin had worked on distemper antisera in 1928, but did not publish details until March 1931.  There were already a number of distemper antisera on the market, mostly used to treat rather than prevent the disease.  The new WPRL combination, by simultaneously infecting and treating the dog, produced antibodies but not the disease.  By May 1931, WPRL had settled on two products – the stablised vaccine-virus and the combined serum-virus – and had begun to make them available commercially.

Product information for distemper vaccine

Product information for Wellcome brand Canine Distemper Vaccine and Virus. Wellcome Library ref. no. WF/M/GB/01/37/01

The special supplement of The Field in February 1933 celebrated the work of Laidlaw and Dunkin at Mill Hill, ‘where distemper was conquered’, and said very little about that undertaken in Beckenham. Narratives that emphasise ‘pure’ research and underplay the ‘applied’ research that takes an invention into everyday use are only too familiar. But they skew our understanding of the dynamic relations and interactions between different types of science and devalue the translational work of experimental development and commercialisation. Staff at Beckenham felt this way in 1933.  One wrote:

While the patient and brilliant experimental work of Laidlaw and Dunkin has been duly acclaimed, it is nevertheless desirable that tribute should be made to the associated workers of WPRL who have been able to translate laboratory experimental work into commercial scale production.  It is, perhaps, almost unnecessary to state that many technical questions regarding the preparation, standardisation and suitability had to be investigated and solved.

We concur with this assessment of the importance of the translational work undertaken at WPRL, and would add that others also should enjoy recognition: the many veterinarians, masters of hounds and dog owners who conducted field trials and fed-back results. Our history of the distemper project, discussed in greater detail in our article in the British Journal for the History of Science (DOI: ) is further telling evidence against the linear model of innovation that still dominates thinking on translational research.

Authors: Dr Michael Bresalier (History, King’s College London) and Prof Michael Worboys (Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester)

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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One Response to ‘Saving the Lives of Our Dogs’
  • tre2215


    Its crazy to think a dog disease of this magnitutde existed at one point and people struggled to come up with a cure. Great read, thanks

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