Archive capturing the stories of pioneering medical scientists is donated to the University of Sheffield

Dr Frank Ryan archive 500The University of Sheffield has received a collection of materials that offer a unique insight into the lives and methods of the early antibiotic pioneers who worked to develop effective treatments for tuberculosis (TB) in the early nineteenth century. 

The collection, assembled and donated by Sheffield Medical School alumnus, emeritus consultant physician and Honorary Sheffield Medical School Senior Lecturer, Dr Frank Ryan, paints a very real account of early drug discovery which will now be preserved in the University Library Special Collections. Once catalogued, this will allow students and researchers to learn more about the history of medicine and the impact new antibiotics had on the treatment of TB.

The story of the archive began when Dr Ryan, who was working at the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield at the time, realised that the history of how the first effective treatment for TB was discovered was not known amongst his colleagues. This motivated Dr Ryan to travel the world to find the answer and meet with the major players in early antibiotic discovery.

In researching the story, Dr Ryan met, interviewed and captured the voices of many of the leading pioneers in medical research, all of whom strove to find a way to ‘beat’ this terrible disease, culminating in his 1990s book, Tuberculosis: the greatest story never told which was awarded the New York Times Book Review non-fiction book of the year.

The donated collection includes a series of interviews with pioneering scientists of the antibiotic age, such as Dr Selman Waksman, Gerhard Domagk, Jorgen Lehmann and Dr Norman Heatley OBE, letters from sufferers, and photographs covering the history and early use of antibiotics particularly focused on the treatment of tuberculosis. All of which will be eventually conserved and catalogued by the archives team in the University Library Special Collections.

With University Special Collections, Dr Andrew Fenton, Florey Institute Research Fellow in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, successfully secured this collection so that future generations can gain insight into the work of the pioneers of antibiotics.

Dr Fenton said: “This collection paints a vivid picture of the patient experience of tuberculosis and the very human story of the pioneering scientists who sought to develop the cure. This is a truly inspirational story which is not only valuable for the history of medicine but also shows us what a post-antibiotic era may look like. This is an important message for us to consider as incurable-tuberculosis infections continue to rise within the global population.”

The University Library Special Collections is home to over 200 archive collections; over 30,000 rare books; pamphlets; and oral histories. This new collection will provide valuable insight into the history of medicine and antibiotics. Next steps for the collection include cataloguing, re-housing and other collection management activities which will ensure it becomes accessible to researchers and the wider public.

Sheffield’s contribution to the discovery and use of the antibiotic penicillin continues to gain international recognition. Over seventy-five years on from Sir Howard Florey’s pioneering work to purify penicillin which resulted in him being jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1953, the University of Sheffield’s Florey Institute is addressing one of the world’s biggest biomedical challenges - infectious disease. Now more than ever we need a better understanding of the global spread of resistance in order to limit the current and impending future threat and it’s hoped that collections like this will further contribute to our knowledge in this field.

Study opportunities

MSc Antimicrobial Resistance