MacLean and Smedley: love among the scientists

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By | From the Collections

By chance, a new addition to Wellcome Images  led me to an intriguing story of love (and collaboration) in the laboratory.

Medical Equipment used for measuring blood sugar

Equipment for the Maclean’s estimation of blood sugar kit produced by Allen and Hanbury. Image credit: Wellcome Images and WAM Riddle, University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust.

The photograph shows equipment for MacLean’s estimation of blood sugar kit, which was produced by Allen and Hanburys, an East London based pharmaceutical company. Its creator, Professor Hugh MacLean (1879-1957), was a physiologist and biochemist working at St Thomas’s hospital, London, from 1912.

He became Professor of Medicine in 1920. During his time at St Thomas’s, MacLean undertook research into, amongst other things, the various methods available for measuring levels of glucose in the blood. His method was first described in his 1914 paper in the Journal of Biochemisty: A method for the estimation of sugar in blood with observations on some modern methods.

MacLean had an impressive career. Amongst his achievements, he was noted as having made a significant contribution to the emergence of the clinic system that we use today to manage healthcare provision. In 1923, he was credited as having secured funds for the building of a new research laboratory at St Thomas’s.

What he most definitely did not wish to be known for the Maclean Stomach Powder. In a letter to the British Medical Journal in 1935, he denied any involvement with Macleans Ltd. and their product.

Before joining St Thomas’s, MacLean was employed as senior assistant in the biochemical department at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine. It was here that he met Dr Ida Smedley (1877-1944). Romance blossomed and along with it their careers. They worked successfully, both together and independently, on numerous research projects. In 1913 they were married and went on to have two children.

Lister Institute archives: Wykeham studios, group portrait.

Lister Institute archives: Wykeham studios group portrait with Ida Smedley in third row, sixth from right. Wellcome Library reference: CMAC SA/LIS.

Like MacLean, Ida’s scientific achievements were enviable, and in her case perhaps more notable as the field saw fewer women in established careers. She was awarded the Bathurst Scholarship by Newnham College when she graduated to take up postgraduate research in London at the Central Technical College. Her research into benzyl aniline sulphonic acids and their derivatives gained her a DSc. in 1905 from London University.

In 1906 Ida became the first female assistant lecturer and only female staff member within the chemistry department of the University of Manchester. She was also the only woman amongst the ten recipients of a prestigious Beit Research Fellowship.

Menu from a Beit Memorial Fellowship Dinner with signatures of attendees, including that of Ida Smedley. Wellcome Library Reference: SA/BMF/G.1.

Menu from a Beit Memorial Fellowship dinner with signatures of attendees, including that of Ida Smedley. Wellcome Library Reference: SA/BMF/G.1.

In the year of her marriage to Hugh, Ida was awarded the Ellen Richards Prize by the American Association of University Women, for the most outstanding contribution of the year to scientific knowledge made by a woman. Amongst her long list of ‘firsts’, Ida became the first female Fellow of the Chemical Society in 1920. She was a recognised authority on fatty acids in animals and published a book, the Metabolism of Fat, in 1943.

Ida was passionate about the importance of professional recognition for women in universities. Her work focused on improving opportunities for women to become involved in original research, better facilities for professional women and the opening of membership of the learned societies to qualified women. Her legacy still makes a contribution towards women in science with the Ida Smedley Maclean Fellowship, which is awarded by the International Federation for University Women.

MacLean and Smedley worked together at the Lister Institute, publishing their research on the utilisation of sugars by the normal and diabetic heart in the Journal of Physiology in 1913 – the year of their marriage. They continued to collaborate through their lives, co-authoring the second edition of MacLean’s book on lipids.

There is no doubt much more to their story. For me, there is definitely  much more now to the image of the blood sugar kit. It reminds me of the love both Ida and Hugh had for each other and their scientific work, but also  how men and women have worked together in laboratories for over a hundred years, equally respected and with professionalism.

Carly Dakin

Carly Dakin is Clinical Collections Coordinator for Wellcome Images.

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