Den Busby (1919-?) worked at the National Institute for Medical Research from the age of 15. He started work there in 1934 so his career spanned a time of great change for science technicians with improving conditions and a breaking down of old social barriers in the laboratory.
The National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) was established in Hampstead in 1919. It was one of several large modern laboratories that was springing up in the early 20th century. It was set up by the Medical Research Council (MRC) as a research centre with four departments: applied physiology, biochemistry, bacteriology and statistics. From the beginning, the MRC realised that assistant staff would be vital to their work and it was at the NIMR that Den Busby started in 1934.
Before World War I assistant staff were generally young ‘lab boys’ fresh from grammer-school who were paid personally by the man – and it was always a man – for whom they worked. When they started few of them would have had a clear idea of what the job entailed. Some were drawn to the role because they had an interest in science or in ‘how things work’, others just wanted a job. This system of hiring lab-boys was common until the Second World War with local boys like Den Busby being employed straight from school aged aged 15.
Den was lucky, by 1934 these large laboratories had developed proper scales not only for pay but also for promotion. Being an assistant had become seen as a ‘profession’, a career option for bright young school leavers, like Den. Thus, ‘lab boys’ who improved their manual and intellectual skills, either at work or more usually through evening classes, became identified as ‘lab assistants’.
Unfortunately, there was a limited number of these ‘A’ positions and this caused resentment as staff could be stuck at the same point on the salary scale for many years. Despite this, things were improving with an expansion in the number of technical posts and improved terms and conditions of service. For example, they got pensions which they hadn’t had before.
Despite improvements in working conditions at the NIMR there was still deep divisions. If a Senior Scientists was in the lift, the technicians weren’t allowed to use the lift. Even 15 years after he first started, Den, then aged 30 years, was referred to as ‘lab-boy’ by his boss Christopher Andrews. “It didn’t worry me”, he recalled, “but I’ve always remembered that. I thought, ‘Good Lord! I’m still only his lab-boy!’”
Like many people at that time Den was called up for service during the war and in 1944 was serving in the Royal Navy when the laboratory called him back to London. When he returned Den found that many of the pre-war barriers broken down and seems to have struggled to adjust to the changes, “[Informality] was something I could never really take to. I could never adapt to that, I suppose, having been brought up in this strict regime. I do remember once calling Dr Porterfield ‘James’, and I felt quite staggered at my temerity.” This was a step forward but then, there were still separate dining rooms at the NIMR into the 1960s.
By the time of his retirement in 1979 Den had risen to Principal Technician.
I’m still trying to find out more about what work Den was involved in during his time at the NIMR. I know it involved infecting eggs with the flu virus and given that his boss, Christopher Andrew’s, was one of the key researchers involved in isolating the human influenza virus in 1933 it is safe to assume his work was related to this. If you know any more about Den’s work please get in touch.
Most of the information I have about Den comes from a fantastic paper and article by Tilli Tansey as part of her studies into the practices at the National Institute of Medical Research exploring the changing attitudes to laboratory technicians over the past century:
- Tansey, E. M., Keeping the culture alive, Notes & Records of the Royal Society 62, 77–95 (2008)
There is also a transcript from a Witness Seminar held in 2014:
- Technology, techniques, and technicians at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) c.1960–c.2000, The transcript of a Witness Seminar held by the History of Modern Biomedicine Research Group, Edited by C Overy and E M Tansey, Volume 59, 2016
There is also an interesting article in the Guardian about the Medical Research Committee: