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Insight blog: Posts from the "Behind the picture" Category

Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.

Behind the picture: When Mr Scott met his brain

15 Jan 2016

This week Mr John Scott, a member of the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936, was able to meet his grey and his white matter in models made by the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) and the National Museum of Scotland which are due to form part of a new gallery opening in summer 2016. Sylvie Kruiniger talks to CCACE’s Dr Simon Cox about the project.

Mr Scott holds a 3D print of his brain

(Image copyright: National Museums of Scotland)

How many people can say that they have held their own brain in their hands? In this picture, Mr Scott is doing just that. Its size, shape and folds perfectly match those housed inside his head. The 3D print of his brain’s outer surface will sit alongside a strikingly beautiful image of his white matter etched in glass at the National Museums of Scotland from summer 2016.

Mr Scott’s brain has been imaged numerous times over the past decade as part of studies of the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 (LBC1936). The team, led by Professor Ian Deary (whose office we have visited in a previous post), used different types of  MRI scan generated by the University of Edinburgh’s Brain Research Imaging Centre to generate the two objects for the museum’s collection. His white matter was mapped by a diffusion tensor MRI and, for the 3D print, his cortical surface was mapped by a standard structural scan. [...]

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Behind the picture: The ‘smart’ dressing aiming to tackle antimicrobial resistance

16 Nov 2015

Doctors could soon be getting the green light to prescribe antibiotics with a light-up dressing that indicates whether burns are infected or not. If successful, use of the dressing should reduce unnecessary prescribing of antibiotics and therefore antibiotic resistance, and make life a little easier for patients.

The dressing responding to the presence of bacterial toxins

The dressing responding to the presence of bacterial toxins (Image: University of Bath)


It has the air of a futuristic Star Trek-style medical device – a dressing which can tell you if a wound is infected. But rather than being confined to television screens, this bandage could be in hospitals in a few short years.

And as well as its glow-in-the-dark appeal, the dressing has a much more serious aim – to reduce the unnecessary prescribing of antibiotics to burns patients who don’t actually need them.

At the moment it can take up to two days to tell if a patient who is showing symptoms of infection actually has an infected burn. This means that doctors often end up prescribing antibiotics as a precaution – not good at a time when we should be reducing the overall use of antibiotics, particularly in people who do not have an infection. [...]

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Behind the picture: Sir John Sulston’s worm cell drawings

23 Sep 2015

Sir John Sulston is best known for the leading role he played in the Human Genome Project. But earlier in his career, he studied the development of the nematode worm. Sarah Harrop tells the story behind a lab notebook entry which contributed to a Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough.

Sketches showing coloured representations of how nematode worm cells divide

A page from John Sulston’s 1980 lab notebook showing his cell-tracking method (Image: Wellcome Images under CC BY 4.0)


These intricate biro scribblings are from the 1980 lab notebook of Sir John Sulston, completed when he was a young postdoc at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge. They’re the result of hours spent staring at the embryos of nematode worms under the microscope, hand-drawing their tiny cells as they divided.

Early 1980s technology wasn’t up to photographing the cells at a high enough resolution to see them dividing. So John took on the ambitious task of watching and recording each and every cell division of the developing embryo to trace the origin of each cell. [...]

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Behind the picture: Fred Sanger’s schooldays

13 Aug 2015

Today would have been the 97th birthday of Fred Sanger, double Nobel Prize winner and inventor of DNA sequencing. As her new online exhibition about Sanger’s life and work launches, Dr Lara Marks of the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King’s College London, looks back on his path to the development of DNA sequencing and its application in medicine.  

The boys and masters of Shaftesbury House, Bryanston School, 1934

(Image copyright: Mark Ordish)


This picture, taken in 1934, shows a 16-year-old Sanger almost slap-bang in the middle of a group of boys at Bryanston School, a private school for boys in Dorset. Reflecting his smallness in the photo, Sanger was nicknamed ‘Mouse’ at school, perhaps due to a combination of his size and relative shyness.

Behind Fred’s left shoulder is his brother Theo. It was Theo’s passion and explorations of nature in the family garden that helped awaken Sanger’s interest in science.

Another significant member of the party, in the middle of the front row, is Fred’s chemistry and house master Henry Geoffrey Ordish. Having studied chemistry at Cambridge University and pursued research at the Cavendish Laboratory, Ordish was a powerful influence on Sanger and his decision to pursue a scientific career. [...]

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Behind the picture: Proving the link between BSE and vCJD

12 Mar 2015

Sometimes the most unremarkable-looking images turn out to tell remarkable stories. Katherine Nightingale spoke to Dr Jon Wadsworth at the MRC Prion Unit to find out how this humble picture of proteins contains one of the most high-profile health discoveries of the 1990s.

A Western blot of various prion disease patient samples

(Image copyright: Professor John Collinge, MRC Prion Unit, UCL Institute of Neurology)


Even for those schooled in the art of the western blot, this image might not look like much. In fact, at first glance, it may seem even less remarkable to a trained eye – just another piece of film with its ladders of proteins.

In fact, this image, taken in 1996, represents the first clear evidence that bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) had passed from cows to humans in the food chain to cause a type of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) never seen before. [...]

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Behind the picture: Marjory Stephenson and bacterial biochemistry

26 Jan 2015

January 2015 marks 130 years since the birth of Marjory Stephenson, a researcher who pioneered the study of biochemistry in bacteria and was one of the first two women to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1945. Dr Jane Cope, former Director of the National Cancer Research Institute, shares some of her research into this relatively unknown scientist’s life.

Sketch of Marjory Stephenson

Marjory Stephenson (Image copyright: Principal and Fellows of Newnham College Cambridge)

Newnham College Cambridge is famous for its long corridor with ample space for portraits of distinguished alumnae. As an undergraduate in the 1970s I regularly passed this picture of a kindly looking woman whose eyes seemed to follow me. I thought of her as a benign presence watching over my busy student life. I looked at the name on the portrait ― Marjory Stephenson ― but it meant nothing to me.

After three years I was offered a PhD studentship in the Microbiology Unit of the Biochemistry Department in Cambridge, which was headed by Professor Ernest Gale. On arrival at his office I was amazed to see a copy of the same portrait on the wall.

I learned that she had founded the unit and had been Gale’s teacher and mentor. Her name cropped up again when I joined the Society for General Microbiology, which has a biennial memorial lecture in Marjory’s name. Later, I started to think about finding out more about her. [...]

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Behind the picture: New microscope tech that’s as good as gold

12 Dec 2014

Christmas decoration? Modern art? Anything to do with science at all? Of course it is. As well as being pretty to look at, this little grid full of holes could have a big impact on microscopy. Dr Chris Russo, a researcher at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB) and the person who took the photo, explains more.

A close-up of a gold grid, showing a cross-hatched pattern with internal squares of dots or holes

It might look like something you should hang on your wall, but this picture is actually a close-up of a tiny gold device that could allow researchers to unravel the details of how the complex biological machines inside cells work.

Working with Dr Lori Passmore, I have used this ‘grid’, which costs just a few pounds to make, to almost double the image quality of a multi-million pound electron microscope.

We then used it to determine the structure of a protein called ferritin, a small protein cage which stores the iron that cells need to function, and a particularly tough structure to determine. [...]

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Behind the picture: Major Greenwood and the measure of medicine

30 Oct 2014

Major Greenwood (Image credit: MRC Biostatistics Unit)

Major Greenwood (Image credit: MRC Biostatistics Unit)

The introduction of measurement into medicine established the foundations of the modern discipline of biostatistics, crucial to all aspects of medicine, epidemiology and public health. But how did statistics become so embedded? Isabel Baker looks back at Professor Major Greenwood, an eminent statistician of the 20th century, who developed and encouraged some of the first uses of modern statistical methods in medical science.

This 1920s photo of Major Greenwood ― whose forename was Major, rather than reflecting military rank ― pictures him smiling cheerily on a wooden bench. But it gives little away about the nature of this distinguished and imposing man who dedicated his life’s work to statistics.

“There can be no doubt that to many people he was rather formidable,” reads a tribute to Greenwood in the London Hospital Gazette’s obituary. “But those who knew him best realised that he was just as critical of himself as of others, and that much of his ungenial manner was really due to shyness.” [1]

Greenwood started his career by following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both well-respected doctors. But in 1904, while working part-time as a GP, he attended a course on statistics at University College and found a new interest. [...]

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Behind the picture: Leonard Hill and the divers

13 Aug 2014

Leonard Hill wasn’t the type of researcher to confine his research to the laboratory, as this picture shows. Here Julie Clayton, author of a new history of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, takes a look behind this picture to a man concerned with the health and wellbeing of everyone from slum-dwelling children to parliamentarians.

Leonard Hill with a diver sitting either side

Leonard Hill on a boat during a diving experiment (Image copyright: The Physiological Society, sourced from the Wellcome Library)

 This photo, taken circa 1925, shows Leonard Hill ― mustachioed and dressed somewhat inappropriately for a day on the water ― alongside two of his research subjects.

As well as wearing these cumbersome suits, deep-water divers at the time often suffered the painful and dangerous condition of “the bends” when they ascended too quickly to the surface.

It was physiologist Hill who found that the drop in external pressure during ascent led to the formation of tiny bubbles of nitrogen gas in the blood. He did experiments on frogs to demonstrate that the bubbles dissolve again into the blood stream upon recompression. His work led to recommendations for a slow and steady decompression for divers as a remedy. [...]

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Behind the picture: Sneezing for Britain

1 Jul 2014

As it turns 100, the MRC National Institute for Medical Research has a lot to be proud of, not least some of its contributions to both World Wars. Here Julie Clayton, author of a new history of the institute, looks back on Tommy Work and the unusual role he played in preventing the spread of infectious disease in WWII.

(Image credit: MRC NIMR)

(Image copyright: MRC NIMR)

It was the sneeze that was seen throughout the UK ― in a government poster campaign during World War II that warned against the spread of infectious organisms. The man whose nasal droplets dispersed so well was Tommy Work, a biochemist at the MRC’s National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), who found the whole episode highly embarrassing.

This photograph has come to light during a search of the NIMR’s archives for a celebration of the institute’s centenary in 2014, and is published in a book of the institute’s history, A Century of Science for Health. [...]

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