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Science Snaps: Sir Henry Morris and the ‘anonymous Gentleman’

by Nick Peel | Analysis

6 January 2015

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Imperial Cancer Research Fund research staff (1909)
This entry is part 9 of 30 in the series Science Snaps

1901 marked a barren time for our understanding of cancer. Progress was slow, and not much had changed in the 100 years since Dr Thomas Denman wrote in 1802 that “little is at present known of cancer, but as an incurable disease.”

But at the dawn of the 20th century this was all set to change. Following an anonymous letter and a chance meeting, two gentlemen shared an idea that would go on to lay the foundations for what we now know as Cancer Research UK.

One of those gentlemen was Sir Henry Morris, pictured below. And as part of our Wikipedia project we’ve unearthed some fascinating old images that turn the focus – at least for this edition of Science Snaps – away from the science and onto the scientists.

And as we look forward to another year of research, we thought it would be a good opportunity to share a potted history of their role in Cancer Research UK’s origins.

The “anonymous gentleman”

Portrait of Sir Henry Morris

Portrait of Sir Henry Morris

As the 19th century became the 20th, Henry Morris – then a well-known surgeon – was chair of the Cancer Investigation Committee at the Middlesex Hospital Cancer Laboratories.

On the 9th September 1901 an anonymous letter appeared in the St James’s Gazette, proposing the idea of a subscription fund for a “cancer klinik” to study all aspects of the disease, with a view to one day finding a cure.

Morris responded with a letter of his own, published on the 14th October, citing the excellent facilities he had up and running at the Middlesex Hospital. If people were calling for funding, Morris wanted it directed towards the Middlesex’s research efforts.

But this was all set to change the next day, when the ‘anonymous gentleman’ knocked on Morris’s front door in person: Morris found himself answering the door to one Thomas Rudd – a wealthy businessman whose idea of a dedicated British home for cancer research was set to change things forever.

Rudd had seen Morris’s riposte, and wanted to talk him round.

Following what must have been a very impressive pitch, Morris, who was also a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, called an extraordinary meeting of the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons’ finance committee to discuss the fund at his home, 8 Cavendish Square, London.

This was a true landmark moment in our history, as it was here that the focus of the fund was set as “the investigation of the cause, nature and treatment of cancer” – a focus that remains at the core of what we do to this day.

Following these discussions and the agreement from the Royal Colleges to provide laboratory space in London, a campaign to collect £100,000 through Rudd’s “influence in the City of London” was launched in the Times on 19th April 1902. The Cancer Research Fund was born.

A home for research

Sadly, Thomas Rudd became ill in early 1902, and died before he could pitch the idea to his London contacts.

With the pace of fundraising hampered by his loss, the Fund’s accounts showed that just £20,000 had been raised. This called for a change of tactics, and – in what would turn out to be one of the most important strokes of luck in the history of cancer research – the team dropped their plans to enrol human patients as part of their studies.

Instead, in a bid to lower costs, they decided to develop a better understanding of the ‘basics’ of cancer – studying tumour samples and cancer in animals instead. This would inadvertently spawn one of the first dedicated cancer research institutes, and help to shape what we now know as modern laboratory-based cancer research.

With operations scaled back, the Fund acquired a small amount of laboratory space – two rooms to be exact – round the back of the Conjoint Examination Hall on the Victoria Embankment in London.

These opened on 5th July 1902, with £33,460 in the bank and Henry Morris in place as Honorary Treasurer – a post he held until 1911.

And it was here that they made what many see as the most inspired piece of hiring in the Fund’s history.

Things we now know

On the 30th July 1902, the Fund’s newly established Executive Committee – including Henry Morris – met to discuss plans for what work needed to be done. They decided to recruit a “Superintendent of Research” to take charge of the laboratory activities, and the scientific direction of the Fund.

The job was advertised with a salary of £800 per year, and 12 candidates applied. Five were shortlisted for interview.

Dr Ernest Bashford

Dr Ernest Bashford

Among those was a 29-year-old scientist called Ernest Bashford.

The final five were tasked with writing a proposal, or ‘scheme’ of research – basically laying down exactly what they would focus on over the coming years.

The decision to follow Bashford’s plan and appoint him as ‘Superintendent’ at just 29 would have surprised many. But looking back, his proposal – entitled “A draft scheme for enquiring into the Nature, Cause, Prevention and Treatment of Cancer” – was a masterpiece, and laid the foundations for how a dedicated research institute should go about business.

And with Bashford at the helm, the Fund’s research went from strength to strength.

In 1904, encouraged by the Prince of Wales, King Edward VII gave his backing to the research efforts and the organisation was renamed the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF).

And with more money coming in, and a true visionary guiding the science, the research team went on to make some of the biggest contributions to our early understanding of cancer – including the first statistical survey of the number of people being diagnosed with cancer. They proved:

  • that all races could get cancer;
  • that all vertebrates – animals with backbones – could get cancer;
  • that cancer was not an infection but arose from normal cells;
  • that mice could be used as a valid model to study human cancer.

They also made the first attempts to characterise different cancer types, and performed early experiments on tumour development and immunity.

And we’re still building on those foundations now. Although a group of doctors split off from the ICRF to form the Cancer Research Campaign in the 1920s, cancer research in the UK proceeded at a rapid pace. And in 2002, the ICRF and The Cancer Research Campaign merged once again to form Cancer Research UK, to continue what Henry Morris, Ernest Bashford and the rest of the pioneers of the ICRF started – learning more and more about cancer with the ultimate goal of curing patients.

The next chapter

Browsing the blog posts we’ve published as part of our series on research ‘milestones’, you get an idea of how our scientists have been at the heart of a number of important discoveries.

From the earliest origins of chemotherapy, to a Nobel Prize-winning discovery about the molecular machinery that helps cells divide, our scientists have left their mark.

And a number of these discoveries have emerged from our London Research Institute, the descendant of the Fund’s original research labs on the Victoria Embankment.

Morris’s great, great nephew, Jeremy Hall, told us “I don’t think I appreciated the extent of his professional expertise, or the passion he clearly had to push forward the boundaries of the medical science and knowledge around cancer at that time.”

And we hope to keep this research legacy alive when the scientists from our London Research Institute set up their new home at the Francis Crick Institute, which is set to open this year.