Learning from history

Disce ut Proficias (Learn, that you may improve) is both the motto and guiding principle of the Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS), and its biennial Congress embodies this ideal. Through lectures, workshops and exhibits, all that is new and relevant to the profession is brought to the delegates. So what is the relevance of the very popular History Committee exhibit that looks at the past? Some may agree with Henry Ford, who said: “History is Bunk”, others understand that knowing where we have come from deepens our understanding and insight into where we are, how we got here and why we took that route.

This year’s exhibit traces the history of laboratory and workplace safety. It highlights the dangers that were, and still are, present in the workplace, with an aside to the dangers of leisure. Ask many retired members of the Institute about working conditions when they started and you will hear tales of practices that would now be classed as criminal: mouth-pipetting, smoking at the bench, no EPCs, and TB and Brucella being dealt with on the open bench. Personal protective equipment (PPE) was merely a button down the front of a ‘doctors’ coat that was worn to the canteen as a badge of status; few wore gloves or eye protection. They will also tell you of the cases of laboratory-associated infections, spillage and fumes of carcinogens, centrifuges that ‘walked’ off the bench or sprayed the contents of the tube around the laboratory; this list is almost endless. Workers in other spheres of employment were also exposed to physical, chemical and environmental dangers that caused injury, chronic sickness and death. As the History Display posters illustrate, it is against this background that current safe working practices are based. It is not ‘health and safety gone mad!’


Recent exhibits have recounted the history, discovery of the cause, and the development of techniques for the diagnosis of specific diseases such as syphilis or diabetes; the discovery and application of aniline dyes to a wide range of investigations as well as their role in the development of antimicrobial therapy; insight into the understanding of conditions resulting from genetic mutations; one whole exhibit on the analysis of urine over the centuries; and the evolution of virology as a separate discipline The anniversary of The Great War gave an opportunity to illustrate the impact that laboratories had on the health and survival of military personnel, and how these innovations subsequently benefited civilians.


It has been said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. History can warn about the future. This was well illustrated by the 2017 exhibit which highlighted diseases that the public and many practitioners think have gone but are still lurking and capable of causing outbreaks in an unprotected and unwary population. A case in point being the resurgence of measles. This is due to the public belief that the disease had gone, and that the risks of vaccination outweigh the risks of this damaging and sometimes fatal disease. The understanding of the past does inform the present and allows us to join the dots and enables us to move forward from a sound base.

Further information can be found on the IBMS website (www.ibms.org), searching ‘history’.

David Petts PhD MSc FIBMS

David Petts is a retired head biomedical scientist in microbiology and Chair of the IBMS History Committee. David was an author, together with Tony Harding and Brian Nation, of Letters of Consequence: A History of the Institute of Biomedical Science, which was published in 2012 to coincide with the centenary of the IBMS.