Wellcome’s tropical legacy

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By | From the Collections

Some of the most innovative medical research happens in Africa. This was something Henry Wellcome knew, and it is something that the Wellcome Trust continues to be aware of. Today, major overseas programmes supported by the Trust include the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme, a partnership with The Kenya Medical Research Institute based in Kilifi and Nairobi; and the Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Trust Research Programme, in Blantyre.

The Wellcome Trust and its predecessor organisations have a long history of involvement in Africa. This dates back to September 1902 when the Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratories at Gordon Memorial College, Khartoum were opened.

These included a floating laboratory, which could travel along the Nile where needed. Instead of waiting for samples to be delivered (often arriving in a poor state) to Khartoum, they could be examined in situ. This could also lead to quicker treatment, and easier containment of epidemics.

Model of Wellcome's floating laboratory. Wellcome Images ref. M0013177

Model of Wellcome’s floating laboratory. Wellcome Images ref. M0013177

Although the innovative idea of a floating laboratory didn’t really take off, and control of the Khartoum laboratories passed to the Sudanese Government in 1913, this was far from the end of the relationship between Wellcome and the African continent. The work started in Sudan was continued back in Britain, first as part of the Wellcome Research Laboratories at Beckenham, and then later at Euston Road.

This research was undertaken under the broad heading of “tropical medicine”. The use of the word “tropical” to denote the research undertaken in places like Africa and the West Indies, is a bit of a misnomer, and really just refers to the fact that researchers were investigating diseases that were uncommon or unknown back in Britain.

In addition to enabling medical research in Africa, in the 1980s the Wellcome Trust realised the importance of documenting this research, and ensuring its availability to historians of the future. The Wellcome Tropical Institute appointed an Archivist, who set about collecting personal and organisational papers. These were transferred to the Wellcome Library when the Institute was disbanded in 1989.

Stanley Browne treating patients at an outdoor clinic, probably in Nigeria. Wellcome Images ref. L0044613.

Stanley Browne treating patients at an outdoor clinic, probably in Nigeria. Wellcome Images ref. L0044613.

Former Wellcome Tropical Institute collections available to researchers include the personal papers of:

  • the Leprologist Stanley Browne (WTI/SGB)
  • the Malariologist (and historian of Malaria) Leonard Bruce-Chwatt (WTI/LBC)
  • Eldryd Hugh Owen Parry (WTI/EHP), Director of the Wellcome Tropical Institute.

Organisational collections include:

  • the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (WTI/RST), which includes papers of Sir Patrick Manson, Sir David Bruce and Sir Philip Manson-Bahr)
  • and LEPRA – The British Leprosy Relief Association (WTI/LEP).

The latest name to add to this list is that of E. H. Williams, whose papers (WTI/EHW) relating to his work in Uganda, principally on Burkitt’s Lymphoma and Kaposi’s Sarcoma, can now be consulted in the Library.

Ted Williams arrived in the West Nile district of Uganda in 1941, accompanied by his wife Muriel. The couple were later joined by his younger brother Peter. At the time the West Nile district had only one Government hospital, serving a population of 350,000.The three of them built and equipped Kuluva Hospital and Leprosy Treatment Centre. Ted worked as Medical Superintendent at Kuluva until his retirement in 1977. During this time, he also worked with the Leprosy Study Centre, and advised the Ugandan Government on the disease. He was awarded an MBE for his leprosy work in 1960.

Anaesthetic leprosy of the hand, from "Om Spedalskhed: Atlas,” by D.C. Danielssen, Johan Ludvig Losting, and Wilhelm Boeck, 1847. Wellcome Images ref. L0074861.

Anaesthetic leprosy of the hand, from “Om Spedalskhed: Atlas,” by D.C. Danielssen, Johan Ludvig Losting, and Wilhelm Boeck, 1847. Wellcome Images ref. L0074861.

Inspired by a trip to Southern Africa researching occurrences of Burkitt’s Lymphoma with his friend Denis Burkitt, Williams began to do similar research in the West Nile district around Kuluva. He started by setting up cancer registers, recording incidences of different cancers. He then traced Burkitt’s Lymphoma patients to their homes and marked these on a map. He also looked at other factors such as the weather in the area. The “time space clustering” he discovered suggested that the disease was caused by an infective agent.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer became aware of this work in the early 1970s, and suggested expanding it to include cases of the Epstein-Barr virus. Williams was appointed scientific advisor to the project, with responsibility for treating patients as well as obtaining blood and tissue samples for analysis. This work proved that there was a link between Epstein-Barr and Burkitt’s Lymphoma, and led to Williams receiving the honour of CBE in 1980.

Author: Natalie Walters is an archivist at the Wellcome Library.

Natalie Walters

Natalie Walters is Archives Project Manager at the Wellcome Library. She specialises in the management and curation of born-digital records, and has a worrying knowledge of the history of poisoning.

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