"Tom" the pony immunised to make the first anti-diphtheria antitoxin used in the UK

“Tom” the pony immunised to make the first anti-diphtheria antitoxin used in the UK

Our Heritage

The Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine was established in 1891 as the British Institute of Preventive Medicine.  In 1898 the name was changed to the Jenner Institute of Preventive Medicine and later to the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, the last name being in honour of the illustrious surgeon and pioneer of medical research, Joseph Lister, who had been one of the founders of the British Institute, chairman of the Governing Body from 1898 to 1903 and then President until 1911.

When it was set up the Institute had two aims:

  • to undertake fundamental scientific research into the causes, prevention and treatment of disease in man and animals; and
  • to prepare and supply special protective and curative materials such as vaccines and antitoxins.

As a result, it was an academic research institute needing funds to pursue its research and, at the same time, a production laboratory which was expected to augment the income needed for the research by profits on its sales.  The initial funds came from a variety of sources including philanthropic donations from individuals and Trusts and the provision of a site on the Chelsea Embankment by the Duke of Westminster at a knock-down price, but the institute remained short of funds.  However, a major donation (£250,000) was made by the Earl of Iveagh, head of the Guinness family and brewery, which set the institute on its way and underlies the close association with the Guinness family which remains to this day.

Until 1914 when the Medical Research Committee (later the Medical Research Council) set up the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), the Lister Institute was the only institute of its kind in the country and ranked internationally with the Pasteur Institute in Paris and the Rockefeller Institute in New York.  Microbiology was always a major theme of the Institute’s research, beginning with bacteriology and going on to include virology and protozoology.

Over the years the Institute achieved worldwide renown, leading the fight against disease.  Its targets ranged from smallpox, typhoid and diphtheria in the 19th century, to cancer, rheumatism and nutritional disorders in the 20th century.  Invaluable work was done on viruses and genes, on blood and disinfections, vitamins and nutrition.  The Institute was also one of the cradles of biochemistry and biophysics in Britain with studies on the metabolism of carbohydrates, enzymology and fats and on molecular structures, much of it funded by grants from many organizations.

From the outset, the investigations undertaken at the new Institute were stamped by a diversity that was to continue throughout its life.  During the period preceding the 1914-1918 war, they included the physiology of diving, the lethal effect of ultraviolet light on bacteria, the metabolism of fats and the role of vitamins in nutrition (the term ‘vitamine’ was coined at the Institute).  The discovery by Arthur Harden and his colleagues of co-enzymes won him a share of a Nobel Prize, and the Director, Charles Martin, made outstanding contributions to the study of plague and its transmission.  In 1905, the Lister Institute became a School of the University of London.

Rather than impeding the Institute’s work, the First World War directed it into new channels.  Under the energetic leadership of Martin, the production of tetanus antiserum at Elstree was stepped up; the bacteria causing gas gangrene of infected wounds were identified; and when the fighting ended, Lister workers played a major part in defining the role of vitamins in the nutritional deficiency diseases that were widespread in Europe and elsewhere.

The 1939-45 war again made heavy demands on the Lister, both in terms of the production of antisera and vaccines and the provision of expertise in the field of nutrition; and it was not until the post-war period and the appointment in 1952 of Ashley Miles as Director that the Institute settled into the pattern that was maintained for the next quarter-century. During this period the Institute made more important contributions to biomedical science, which fall under the main headings of Biochemistry, Blood and Blood Products, Microbiology and Vaccines and Antitoxins.  Please click on ‘Our Achievements’ to view some of the scientific and medical contributions made by the Institute over the years.

However in the early 1970s it became clear that the Institute was not holding its own financially.  Repeated annual deficits, coupled with the need for major expenditure to modernise the Elstree production facilities and failure to secure government support dictated closure of the Chelsea laboratories in 1975 and Elstree in 1978.  The closure of this phase of the Institute’s activities only served as the starting point of another; please click on ‘ History of Awards’ for the next development in the Institute’s history.  A complete history of the Institut is provided in ‘The Lister Institute – A concise history’ by Leslie Collier and published by the Institute in 2000.