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To the Crick! Part three: From polystyrene proteins to circuit board spaghetti

by Guest Author on 20 Apr 2016

Conservators Rebecca Bennett and Jill Barnard tell us about their project, funded by PRISM, to conserve 150 items from the Crick Mill Hill Laboratory (previously the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, NIMR) in preparation for the move to the Francis Crick Institute. The objects will be used by the Crick for exhibition and may also be loaned to education groups with an interest in the history of biomedical research.

Ribosome detail showing Crick's signature

Polystyrene proteins: This early model of a ribosome designed by Robert Cox and built by NIMR engineer Frank Doré in 1968 was signed by some of the leading biomedical scientists of the time – including Francis Crick.

We are now 11 weeks into our ‘Tools of the Trade’ conservation project. So far we have treated 137 of 150 historical objects that tell the story of how research developed at NIMR over the course of 100 years.

The collection has been brought together by current or recently retired research and technical staff at NIMR, and encompasses objects that have been mothballed as technologies and research methods have moved on.  They were rescued from the various outbuildings and, together, they trace a trajectory of how biomedical research tools have evolved.

A 1930s portable x-ray machine, still in use in 1984

A 1930s portable x-ray machine, still in use in 1984

Looking back at the state-of-the-art research equipment they had brought together in 1919 the first director of NIMR Sir Henry Dale remembered it as “astonishingly few and simple… We started with an adequate supply of ordinary microscopes, desiccators and simple centrifuges, a spectroscope, a couple of kymographs and such like”. These ‘simple’ items were built upon, improved and replaced by NIMR researchers and engineers. Innovations like the insulin infusion pump were built at the institute and sit in the collection alongside more recent inventions such as Apple Mac Power Books from the mid-1990s and late twentieth-century nuclear magnetic resonance probes.

an early prototype of an insulin infusion pump

Circuit board spaghetti: an early prototype of an insulin infusion pump. Later it was miniaturised to a chip the size of a fingernail.

We have had the pleasure of meeting some retired engineers and researchers from NIMR and it soon became apparent what a special place the laboratory must have been to work. We met engineers who were local and had been taken on as apprentices after school, learning their technical skills on the job. Their role in collaborating with NIMR’s prize-winning researchers is celebrated in this collection, particularly as it was the engineering team who were responsible for saving so many of these objects over the years.

Some instruments were made by NIMR’s skilled engineers in on-site workshops; these are always beautifully designed and constructed. They are fascinating for us as examples of collaboration between the technically-minded engineering team and the researchers to create the perfect tool for the job. Many of the objects were prototypes for instruments that are now produced commercially, like the cell counter below.

Cell counter prototype

This cell counter counted infection levels of trypanosome and malaria infections. Parasitologist Neil Brown requested this innovation to speed up their work and it was developed by John Lewin and Jon Marsh in the 1960s.

Some pieces of equipment were undoubtedly set aside at the end of their working lives because of their significance to the story of NIMR, but others also seem to have been privileged because of their potential material and perhaps even scrap value. Various pieces of electrophoresis equipment, used to separate molecules by size or charge, are very well represented in our collection – perhaps largely because they are complete with their platinum wires!

Electrophoresis apparatus

Frank Hawking’s electrophoresis apparatus, after treatment and packaged for transit and storage

For us, as object conservators, this project presents an interesting challenge as we are dealing with ‘working’ objects. They arrive in our conservation lab complete with grease, soot, labels from electrical safety tests and residues from unknown chemicals. Many of the instruments were made by NIMR’s own staff so the paint surfaces are not always permanently fixed, presenting a particular challenge when cleaning.

As well as grease and dirt the collection also unfortunately harboured a lot of asbestos. One of our first jobs was to commission an asbestos survey of the collection – for which the remediation work has now finished – and to identify any other risks we could with the Mill Hill health and safety team.

Asbestos check of Medawar's microscope

Identifying presence of asbestos in Peter Medawar’s microscope

One of the final objects to be treated will be the early model of a ribosome pictured at the top of the page. Designed by researcher Robert Cox and modelled by engineer Frank Doré in 1968, it was the first attempt to model its structure in detail. Cox asked leading biomedical scientists like Francis Crick to sign each of the polystyrene ‘protein spheres’. Both the fragile polystyrene and the use of light-sensitive blue biro present interesting challenges for long-term preservation – let alone cleaning headaches.

These objects will soon be packed up and moved to the Crick. Watch this space to find out when and where you may be able to take a closer look.

Conserved objects ready for packing to be transported to the Crick

Conserved objects ready for packing to be transported to the Crick

Find out more about the transfer to the Franicis Crick Institute in our ‘To the Crick!’ series:


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