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MRC Biostatistics Unit


Origins of the MRC Biostatistics Unit

The origins of today’s MRC Biostatistics Unit are the same of the Medical Research Council (MRC). The MRC has its roots in the National Insurance Act, passed by Parliament in 1911. Introduced by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George (later Earl Lloyd George of Dwyfor), the act established schemes for health and unemployment insurance based on contributions from employees, employers and the State. One aspect of this — paid for with a penny per working person per year—provided for tuberculosis treatment in sanatoria and for tuberculosis research.

This first National Insurance Act was epoch-making from several points of view, and in the promotion of medical research it was an authentic landmark.

In 1913, in a report to Treasury, the Departmental Committee on Tuberculosis recommended that research be extended to all diseases, and that an advisory council and executive committee be established to oversee research and administer the research funds.

Some of the key dates that followed were:

  • 20 June 1913: the Advisory Council and a Medical Research Committee were appointed.
  • 24 and 25 July 1913: the first meetings of Medical Research Committee took place.
  • 20 August 1913: formal appointments to the Medical Research Committee were made.
  • 30 October 1913: a decision was taken to establish a central institute in London.
  • 4 December 1913: the Advisory Council approved a scheme of research.

The object of the research is the extension of medical knowledge with the view of increasing our powers of preserving health and preventing or combating disease. But otherwise than that this is to be the guiding aim, the actual field of research is not limited and is to be wide enough to include, so far as may from time to time be found desirable, all researches bearing on health and disease, whether or not such researches have any direct or immediate bearing on any particular disease or class of diseases, provided that they are judged to be useful in promoting the attainment of the above object.

The organisation by which this research will be carried out should consist of the following departments:

  1. A competent body of investigators of the highest class in the permanent employ of the scheme and devoting their whole time to research under it. They would be supplied with proper laboratories, duly qualified assistants, etc., and would ordinarily carry on their researches in such laboratories.
  2. Skilled investigators in the permanent or temporary employment of the scheme who would be engaged in procuring their material clinically or otherwise in connection with hospitals or other institutions furnishing the requisite opportunities for so doing. This material would in some cases be worked upon in local laboratories and in some cases at laboratories provided for them elsewhere under the scheme, and sometimes by a combination of both methods.
  3. Individual investigators not in the employment of the scheme who are carrying on independent investigations of a kind which are suitable to form part of or to be co-ordinated with the research under the scheme, and to whom it is desirable to give help either in money or otherwise to enable them better to carry on their researches.
  4. Statistical Department: This will mainly consist of persons in the permanent employment of the scheme who will be engaged in enquiries relating to diet, occupation, habits of life and other matters bearing upon the incidence of disease, and who will collect and deal with all types of vital statistics including the distribution of disease, the relative frequency of special types of lesions in diseases such as Tuberculosis, and in general with all statistical investigations useful either as preliminary to research or confirmatory of its results. It will possibly have to consider and advise how the statistical material provided for under the Insurance Act should be dealt with. It is hoped that when the scheme is in actual work there may become associated herewith a Bureau through which those engaged in research unconnected with the scheme or otherwise working on kindred questions may be able to obtain information, references to special publications and other help of a like nature.

Walter Morley Fletcher, a physiologist in Cambridge, was approached to become Secretary of the Committee early in 1914, and took up the appointment on 1 July.

All these four departments were described as essential to the success of the organisation and were intended to co-operate with one another and would be used separately or together according to the nature of the work in hand. It was neither possible nor desirable to lay down any hard and fast lines of demarcation of their spheres of action. Thus, also, were four methods of promoting research proposed: (1) by maintaining a permanent staff in the Committee’s own laboratories; (2) by maintaining permanent and temporary staff for work wholly or largely in hospitals and other institutions not under the Committee’s control; (3) by making grants to investigators not in the Committee’s employ; and (4) by maintaining a Statistical Department. Except that the fourth is no longer regarded as a separate administrative category, these remain at the present time the principal ways in which research work is supported.
The Medical Research Council was formally established by Royal Charter on 1 April 1920. The Charter includes the objects for which the MRC was established, which include:

  • promoting and supporting high-quality basic, strategic and applied research and related post-graduate training in the biomedical and other sciences, with the aim of maintaining and improving human health;
  • advancing knowledge and technology, and providing trained researchers, which meet the needs of users and beneficiaries – including the providers of health care and pharmaceutical and other biomedical-related industries – thereby contributing to … the economic competitiveness of the UK and the quality of life;
  • generating public awareness, communicating research outcomes, encouraging public engagement and dialogue, disseminating knowledge and providing advice, in such a manner as the Council may see fit.

A. Landsborough Thomson, Half a Century of Medical Research. Volume One: Origins and Policy of The Medical Research Council (UK), Medical Research Council.
© Crown copyright 1973