A Green Plaque was installed in October at the site of the former Middlesex Hospital Medical School in Fitzrovia, to honour biochemists James Tait, Sylvia Simpson, and Hilary Grundy for their contribution to world medicine.
In 1952, the three of them discovered Aldosterone, one of the essential hormones for sustaining human life, while studying at the site. The discovery was published in Nature in a paper called “Isolation of a highly active mineralocortoid from beef adrenal extract”.
“The identification of the hormone Aldosterone stimulated a new period of research into the regulation of salt and water balance, blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Doctors and scientists across the world continue to study the hormone and more than 40,000 papers have been published,” states a report for Westminster council, published in February. The cost of producing and installing the plaque was funded by the Society for Endocrinology.
The council report includes some interesting biographical information about the three researchers as well as a history of the Medical School at the former Middlesex Hospital.
Biochemist Sylvia Agnes Sophia Wardropper was born in Russia in January 1917 and her family returned to England in 1920. She graduated with an honours degree in Zoology from University College London in 1939. In 1941, her first husband, Anthony Simpson, was killed in action. From 1948 she worked with James Tait and Hilary Grundy, building on pioneering work by Ralph Dorfman of Cleveland, Ohio, on adrenal hormones.
James Francis Tait was born in 1926 and joined the Department of Medical Physics at Middlesex Medical School as a lecturer, where he started his work on adrenal steroids. He married Sylvia Simpson in 1956 and in 1958 they moved to the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, where they worked with Gregory Pincus, co-developer of the oral contraceptive pill. In 1970, the Taits returned to Middlesex Hospital as joint heads of the Biophysical Endocrinology Unit. They retired to the New Forest in 1982. Sylvia died in 2003 and James in 2014.
The couple were described by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as “one of the most successful examples of husband–wife collaboration”. Both were elected Fellows of the Royal Society in 1959.
Hilary Grundy (later Drane) was born in 1927 and received a BSc in Household and Social Sciences from King’s College, London in 1947. She went to work at the Middlesex with Simpson and Tait, and played a central role in the discovery of Aldosterone. Grundy began her doctoral studies at Oxford University in 1952 and, following her marriage and move to Canada in 1954, worked in the Nutrition and Endocrinology Departments of the University of Toronto from 1955-1957. She returned to the UK and worked with Sir Richard Doll on “Secretion of blood group substances in duodenal, gastric and stomal ulcer, gastric carcinoma, and diabetes mellitus“. Following the birth of her two children she continued her research at the Central Veterinary Laboratory.
In 2003 she was a guest at the Royal Society to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the discovery of Aldosterone. Grundy died in 2018.
The Middlesex Hospital first opened as the Middlesex Infirmary in 1745 on Windmill Street and moved to Mortimer Street in 1757. In 1928 the medical school was extended by the building of the Courtauld Institute of Biochemistry. It was funded by Samuel Augustine Courtauld and consisted of five floors devoted to biochemical research. The building at 33 Cleveland Street still bears the name of its benefactor, and it was here that the hormone Aldosterone was discovered.
The Medical School later merged with the medical school of University College London in 1987 to form the University College and Middlesex School of Medicine. It, too, merged with the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine in 1998 to form the UCL Medical School. The Middlesex Hospital closed in 2005 when staff and services where transferred to other sites within the University College London Hospitals NHS Trust.
The Courtauld Institute of Biochemistry, now called the Courtauld Building UCL, remained unoccupied for over 10 years until it was recently remodelled internally to create a new home for the Medical Research Council’s, Prion Unit. It provides advanced teaching and research space to support the Prion’s ground-breaking work on the study of the degenerative diseases of the brain.