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Saving the Lives of Our Dogs: The Development of Canine Distemper Vaccine in Interwar Britain

November 19 2012


Seminar Room 1.06, Old Surgeons' Hall, High School Yards, University of Edinburgh

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Organised by: Science, Technology and Innovation Studies at The University of Edinburgh


On 4 February 1933 The Field, England’s leading magazine of country sport and life, ran a special supplement celebrating the conquest of one of the most devastating animal diseases – canine distemper.  This 'success' came from a programme of research funded by public subscription, undertaken by leading researchers at the National Institute for Medical Research, and commercialised, trialled and marketed by the Burroughs Wellcome Company. In this paper I explore how the distemper research programme reveals a number of important, yet previously unexplored features of interwar science and medicine in Britain.  First, the programme was based on a novel patronage system that relied on a large and varied group of benefactors, and this made collaboration between experts and non-experts a necessary condition, and led to high levels of public engagement in all stages of research and development.  Second, the programme saw dynamic interactions between human and animal medicine, which shaped the organisation of NIMR’s research on human viral diseases and established the ferret as a key animal model. Third, the campaign saw the direct and rapid translation of laboratory’ findings to field conditions and commercial products.


Michael Worboys researches the history of medical science and technology at The University of Manchester, where his main work has been on rabies and zoonotic diseases. He has also worked on the history of tuberculosis, the introduction of antibiotics, the standardisation of vaccines and the emergence of Chlamydia as a sexually transmitted disease. His research on rabies has recently led to projects on the social history of pedigree dog breeding, and how biological and medical research have changed the modern dog.,26293,en.t4.html