Finding the “missing link”

Historians will be familiar with the challenges of researching an archive: sifting through a pile of dusty records, drawing a blank in a confusing catalogue, or scoring hundreds of hits searching an electronic database. With the help of an archive expert, however, the rewards outweigh the effort required.

When preparing for my presentation on English medical researcher Dr Annie Homer at the recent BSHM Congress in Edinburgh, I wanted to find out more about her time in Canada at the start of the First World War. In particular, she had served as the Assistant Director of the University of Toronto’s Antitoxin Laboratory, the forerunner of the Connaught Laboratories.

Extract from Antitoxin Laboratory Record of Diphtheria Antitoxin Refining, dated Sept 28th, 1914 [SPC Archives 83-006-01]

I contacted Dr Christopher Rutty, professional medical and public health historian, and consultant to Sanofi Pasteur Canada’s Connaught Campus in Toronto, where the original buildings and archive documents are preserved as part of the country’s medical heritage. By return e-mail, Chris sent me a copy of a lab notebook, which contained several pages written in Homer’s distinctive hand, revealing her work at the start of the war. The preservation of this “missing link” was a stroke of good fortune.

The Connaught Laboratories, University of Toronto, officially opened on Oct 25th, 1917 [SPC Archives 0591]

The Connaught Laboratories were established in 1917 to make up a shortfall of tetanus antitoxin needed by the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and became the site of pioneering advances in the production of vaccines, heparin and insulin. More information is available via The Legacy Project which can be viewed online at www.thelegacyproject.ca

Edward J Wawrzynczak

Posted in medical history, medical research, pharmaceutical history and tagged , .

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