Continuing the series on “Whose Shoulders Are These Anyway?”, Kirsty Martin takes us on the journey in which Sir George Thomas Beatson, medical frontiersman, makes his mark upon the city of Glasgow.

In March this year, a house was on sale in Woodside Crescent here in Glasgow. A Georgian townhouse with period features is a pretty desirable property, this one boasting “exquisite pillars and cornice work, detailed wall frieze work and a totally stunning marble fireplace with over mantle mirror”. But the tagline of the piece written in the Scottish Mail on Sunday shuns these, instead beginning “Cancer pioneer’s home …”

That pioneer was Sir George Thomas Beatson (pictured above): officer, gentleman, physician; and father of Glasgow’s worldwide reputation for cancer research. The name Beatson has since become synonymous with the fight against cancer in Scotland. We have our own Beatson Institute for Cancer Research, funded by CRUK; the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre, for treatment; their great supporters at the Beatson Cancer Charity; and the Beatson Pebble Appeal, which funded our partner building the Wolfson Wohl. Add to this the Lanarkshire Beatson, in development at Monklands hospital, and you begin to see a pattern…

But let’s take a step back. Our story begins more than 5000 miles away and 150 years ago. George Thomas Beatson was born in 1848, in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, where his father, George Stewart Beatson, was Surgeon General to the Indian Army (and Honorary Physician to Queen Victoria.) I can only imagine that it came as a shock to the system when young George was sent home to the British Isles to spend his school days on the Isle of Man and the holidays with family in Campbeltown, Kintyre.

The rural life seemed to suit him though; following his training at Clare College Cambridge and Edinburgh University, he retired for some time to an estate in the West of Scotland, where his observations of sheep and cattle weaning formed the basis for his later success. Here he learned that cattle could be induced to continuously produce milk by removing their ovaries after calving; and noted that “it pointed to one organ holding the control over the secretion of another separate organ”. This was at a time when the field of endocrinology was still in its infancy.

I can’t help but feel that this encapsulates Beatson’s very modern mind-set. His use of information gleaned from the agricultural community, combined with his own experiments observing rabbit mammary glands throughout the process of milk production, represents a degree of interdisciplinary thinking that would be applauded even today. Not only that, but his succinct summary of his observations, that “In short, lactation is at one point perilously near becoming a cancerous process if it is at all arrested” suggests an understanding that cancer results from a small shift from controlled processes to the uncontrolled, which continues to be the foundation of much of our research even today. It was certainly a departure from the accepted dogma of the time, which held that cancer was intrinsically parasitic in origin.

With his MD under his belt Beatson moved to Glasgow, where he set up his private practice and built a reputation that gained him various surgical appointments. In 1893, his previous work at the Western Infirmary earned him the role of consulting surgeon at the Glasgow Cancer and Skin Institution (pictured above). It was only a year later, Beatson became the Director of the institution, which was renamed the Glasgow Cancer Hospital. Beatson’s appointment represented a changing approach to cancer, and his innovations set the scene for the roles that the various organisations that bear his name today still perform.

He himself set the precedent of ovarian removal surgery to treat breast cancer, which became the standard treatment for quite some time. As a radical approach to interfering with oestrogen signalling, this can also be considered as a precursor to Herceptin, and other hormone blocking treatments.

He initiated a nursing service that would care for cancer sufferers in their own homes. This model was widely adopted, and lives on with great distinction in such groups as the MacMillan and Marie Curie nurses, not to mention the NHS’ District nurses.

He secured funding from one Lady Constance Burrell (wife of the famous art collector!) to set up radium therapy in Glasgow. The modern versions of radiotherapy, along with chemotherapy and surgery, continue to be applied at the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre.

And he appreciated the importance of fundamental research into cancer. In 1928 he employed a biochemist, Dr Peacock, to head the research department at the hospital. That department which grew up to be our very own Beatson Institute for Cancer Research, which continues to embrace new fields and new technologies in the ongoing battle against this insidious disease.

Is it any wonder that I feel inspired when I come to work and see the name ‘Beatson’ (pictured above)? Or that I feel a thrill of pride answering questions about where I work? But most of all, every morning from now on I am going to enjoy entering a building named after a man who would rock up to the Royal Automobile Club in a horse-drawn trap!

Kirsty Martin graduated in biochemistry from the University of Glasgow in 2006, moved to Dundee to pursue her PhD in cell signalling at the MRC Unit there. She continued her scientific tour of Scotland with a post-doc in advanced imaging techniques at the newly founded IB3 institute at Heriot Watt University before returning to Glasgow where she’s currently combining these skill sets working at the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research.

Outside of the lab Kirsty’s an avid reader of classic, historical and fantasy literature; she enjoys puzzle and adventure games; and her geek status is cemented by a love of fibrecrafts, particularly knitting and crochet. She’s always excited to find things that combine these varied professional and personal interests!

You can read other blog posts in this series of “Whose Shoulders Are These Anyway” posts from Kirsty on ‘Living Liebig’s laboratory legacy’ and ‘What’s In Your DNA, Friedrich Miescher?. And look out for more from Kirsty in the months ahead.

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