Edinburgh University


In 1921 Charles R Harington (later Sir Charles, Director of the National Medical Research Laboratories), who had been appointed as an Assistant to George Barger, Professor of Chemistry in Relation to Medicine, in 1919, was appointed Assistant in the Department of Therapeutics and as Chemist to R.I.E. He was charged with the duty of providing biochemical analyses to the clinicians of the Infirmary. Harington left to take up an appointment at University College, London, in 1922 and was succeeded by William Robson, who had also been one of Barger's Assistants (1919 to 1922). (ref: 51)

In 1922 a "lab-boy" called Archibald was appointed. One of his duties was to collect pancreatic tissue from the City Abattoir at Gorgie (ca. 1924) for the preparation of insulin and the large double-walled metal insulated cans he used were still in the basement in 1926 when he was succeeded by William Forshall.

Around 1923-24, David Murray-Lyon, Professor of Therapeutics, made an offer at George Watsons Boys College for a boy who wanted to study medicine but needed financial assistance. He would work in the Biochemistry Laboratory part time during term time and full time during vacations and, thus, gain relevant experience as well as a degree. Roy MacMartin took up this offer, but found that he was unable to combine both work and study. He left the laboratory after about two years. (ref: 110)

In 1926 Eugenia Semeonoff worked part time in the laboratory while studying part time for a science degree. She had left Russia at the age of six in 1914 with her brother, Boris, who later was a member of the staff of Edinburgh University Department of Psychology, and their mother, who was studying English. The Russian Revolution prevented their returning. Eugenia's mother knew the MacMartin family and approached Murray-Lyon to arrange that Eugenia be taken into the laboratory on similar terms but to study for a BSc, Honours Physiology, specialising in Biochemistry in the final year. Her subjects were two years Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics and Zoology and three years Physiology. In the third year, she undertook some individual research on phosphate metabolism in muscle under Dr Philip Eggleton. Semeonoff was paid 1 per week throughout the term time and the vacations, and allowed two weeks holiday each year. She was taught the practical laboratory methods by Robson and, some months later when Bill Forshall was appointed, she was entrusted with the task of teaching him. She left the laboratory in 1929 to start the second year of the Physiology Course and graduated in 1931. She was appointed as Laboratory Assistant at the Crichton Royal Hospital in Dumfries (1933 to 1941) and later, after working in the Sheffield Women's Hospital (1941 to 1943), the M.R.C. Burns Unit in Glasgow and Birmingham ( 1943 to 1945) and as the Organising Secretary for Scotland of the Association of Scientific Workers (1946 to 1957), she finished her professional career in Glasgow Stobhill and Ruchill Hospitals from 1957 to her retiral in 1973. (ref: 110)

Bill Forshall was 22 when he was appointed as "Lab Assistant", at a wage of 2/5/- (2.25) per week. He had been offered the post in 1922 when he had been a lab-boy in the Department of Chemistry, but the job description he had been given at the time, "working with livers and things like that", had not appealed. However, by 1926, he was a Junior Chemist working on alternate shifts with another chemist for the British Aluminium Company in Burntisland, Fife, and spending the entire shift assaying process liquors for soda and alumina. Although the move involved a drop in salary (from 3.10 per week), the work at the Royal Infirmary was much more interesting. Forshall worked in the department until 1934. After holding appointments as medical laboratory technician at Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham (1934 to 1948), where he studied for and became an Associate of the Institute of Chemistry, and Assistant Biochemist in Sheffield (1948 to 1952), he returned as Assistant Biochemist to the Edinburgh Northern Group of Hospitals in 1952, where he studied for his PhD, and to the Royal Infirmary as Research Assistant from 1962 until his retiral in 1969. He died in 1990. (ref: 91)

Although much of the work was the provision of routine chemical analyses, opportunities for research did present themselves. Early in 1927, Professor Murray-Lyon admitted a young woman, aged 18, with cystinuria. As little was known about this condition, except that it was congenital, Robson wanted to see the effect of giving the patient oral cystine. None of the chemical firms sold cystine, but Robson found a paper showing how it could be prepared from hair. Forshall arranged for his barber to collect the floor sweepings into large paper bags. Also, as women were just beginning to "bob" their crowning glory, he persuaded a young lady friend to donate her titian tresses for the cause of medical science. Cystine was then prepared by cramming 1 kg of hair into a 10 litre flask and boiling with dilute hydrochloric acid. After the acid was neutralised with lime, the resulting tarry mess was extracted and, after several re-crystalisation steps, approximately 6 g of fairly pure cystine was obtained. This was fed to the patient in doses of 2, 4, 6, 8, 6, 4 and 2 g on successive days. Semeonoff and Forshall assayed the nitrogen, sulphur and cystine content of the urine. Although they found an increase in urinary sulphur and nitrogen excretion, there was no increase in urinary cystine excretion. Robson presented these results at an International Physiological Congress held in Edinburgh in 1927. (ref: 91)
Cystinuria had been regarded as being due to an inborn metabolic defect which prevents its metabolism (e.g. AE Garrod, "Inborn Errors of Metabolism", London, Oxford Medical Publications, 1923). The above experimental data is consistent with the later findings of CE Dent and GA Rose (Quart. J. Med. 1951; 20 N.S.: 205) that the increased excretion of cystine is due to a renal tubular defect so that the capacity to resorb cystine is impaired and that the plasma levels of the amino acid are normal. (2nd edition: Varley)
In 1927 Robson was appointed as Lecturer (and later as Professor) of Physiological Chemistry at King's College at the University of London. He was succeeded by CP Stewart who was designated as "Biochemist to the Royal Infirmary" and paid an honorarium from Infirmary funds. CP Stewart arranged for the post to be part time in order to continue as a Lecturer in Barger's Department and had a graduate assistant to deputise for him in his absence. The first holder of this post was Fred P Coyne who was followed by Robert Gaddie in 1929 and by Edward B Hendry in 1931.

Accommodation and Methods in the 1920s and 1930s

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