Fancy a romantic get-away this Valentine’s day? Forget weekends in Paris, fancy hotels, red roses and oversized teddy bears; from 1946, volunteers flocked to the MRC Common Cold Research Unit (CCU) in Salisbury for a holiday with a twist – a one in three chance that they might catch a cold. And as the archive of David Tyrrell (PP/TYR), head of the CCU, reveals, the Unit provided a rather unusual setting for fledgling romances and honeymoon breaks.
Although participating in a common cold trial might not sound like much fun, the offer of a free 10 day break in the countryside with food, board and lodgings was not to be sniffed at during a time of post-war scarcity. And as the years went on, the centre grew in popularity as a budget holiday destination, as well as undertaking important research in virology.
Jointly run by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Ministry of Health (MoH), the purpose of the Common Cold Research Unit was to examine how colds were caused and transmitted. To do this, the Unit enlisted up to 30 human guinea pigs for each fortnightly trial, housed either alone or in pairs and threes in Nissan huts on the Salisbury site. Once the cold viruses had been administered, the fully-gowned and masked staff waited in anticipation for the first sneezes to erupt, weighing-scales at the ready to record the mass of crumpled, used tissues.
To avoid cross-contamination, the CCU ruled that participants remained at least 30 foot away from each other at all times. Staff reminded volunteers that a “thoughtless breach of isolation can ruin the whole scientific trial, and create havoc, and waste all the expenditure of time and money and effort”. However, as the archive shows, some of the volunteers rose to the challenge of expressing their romantic desires from a 30-foot sneezing distance.
Only married couples were allowed to share accommodation, so for those out of wedlock, it was a case of admiring from afar. Internal phones provided one way for lonely hearts to chat each other up, with one volunteer recalling long phone conversations between isolated flats: “I remember one trial […] when one or two male volunteers had long telephone conversations with me, giving histories of their lives which were, I think, largely fictional”. (PP/TYR/A/1/4/4).
He stood like Romeo under the veranda of her flat at a distance which he judged to be 30 feet, the minimum permitted distance.
Could distance (and a blocked nose) make the heart grow fonder?! It seemed so. In spite of quarantine conditions and ignoring all the red noses and sniffles, friendships and relationships were courted over the telephone, by semaphore from one flat to another, by secret notes, and by country walks:
“A man came with his girlfriend and they were housed in adjoining flats. He stood like Romeo under the veranda of her flat at a distance which he judged to be 30 feet, the minimum permitted distance. They asked us if they could go for country walks together holding the ends of a string 30 feet long, keeping it taut. This was allowed and they kept their side of the bargain, but at an early stage of the walk the string collided with the trunk of a tree and folded back on itself, still taut, bringing its ends – and the lovers – together.” (PP/TYR/A/1/4/4)
Another volunteer recalled:
“One of my flatmates ‘fancied’ the bloke in the next flat but the connecting door was firmly locked, so notes were passed through the gap under the door, and when they had lovey-dovey conversations at the door it was a lovey-dovey yelling match which we all heard.” (PP/TYR/A/1/4/4)
As married couples were allowed to share a flat, the Unit became a rather unusual honeymoon destination. The CCU promoted the centre as a cheap holiday resort for wedded couples, with recruitment material boasting that: “young married couples, and older ones alike, enjoy the rest for 10 days from housekeeping and cooking” (PP/TYR/A/2/3/1). Correspondence in the archive describes how married couples returned year after year for their bargain package holiday and dose of the sniffles – it was proving infectious.
By the time the Common Cold Unit finally closed its doors in 1990, hundreds of runny-nosed volunteers had taken part in this unusual study. Regardless of whether they found love or caught a cold, these volunteers played a vital role in helping scientists understand how and why the common cold is transmitted. And really, finding love in a cold climate was not an opportunity to be sniffed at.
Author: Elena Carter, Project Archivist at the Wellcome Library.
Find out more:
- To search the David Tyrrell archive, browse the online catalogue using the reference PP/TYR.
- The original tapes, transcripts and additional correspondence from the Wellcome Witness Seminar ‘The MRC Common Cold Unit’, are held at the Wellcome Library (GC/253/A/2/4); a transcript of the recording is available online.
- An oral history of the history of the common cold unit is available at the British Library Sound Archive.
- A large quantity of archives of the CCU are held at National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), and further material relevant to the history of CCU may be found in the main NIMR archives.