Sir Almroth Edward Wright

Sir Almroth Edward Wright, KBE, MD, FRCPI, FRS (1861-1947). Oil on canvas, 1934, by Sir Gerald Kelly, KCVO, PRA, LLD (Cantab and TCD).

Almroth Edward Wright (1861 - 1947) was a leading authority in the study of bacteriology, immunology and haematology. He was also an enthusiastic advocate of full-time specialist research, and saw the importance of adequate funding for large-scale research projects in medicine. He is not well-known for one of the major discoveries to emerge from one of his laboratories, that of penicillin by Fleming. However, had it not been for Wright there would have been no laboratory in the first place.

Wright was born in Middleton Tynas Rectory near Richmond, Yorkshire, where his father was an Anglican clergyman; his mother was Swedish, daughter of Nils Almroth, Professor of Chemistry at the Karolinska Instituet in Stockholm; his uncle Perceval Wright, was Professor of Botany at the University of Dublin. Wright's father spent some years in Dresden and Boulogne, before his appointment as rector of St Mary's Church, Crumlin Road, Belfast in 1874. Wright spent his teenage years in Belfast, where he attended the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, along with all four of his brothers, of whom two, as well as Wright himself would later be knighted.

At seventeen he entered the University of Dublin where he studied modern languages and literature simultaneously with medicine, graduating BA in 1882 and qualifying in medicine in 1883. He was awarded a scholarship to study at Leipzig, at that time an outstanding world medical centre. After a period in London and Cambridge, he was back in Germany, at Magdeburg and Straßburg (now Strasbourg, France). In 1892 he was appointed Professor of Pathology at the Army Medical School at Netley, where he developed an anti-typhoid vaccine which was to save large numbers of lives, especially military. In 1902 he moved to St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, as an immunologist and pathologist. Here, he would research into phagocytosis (the process the human body uses to destroy dead or foreign cells), investigating the possibilities of stimulating immunity to combat disease. He also campaigned for a central funding agency for medical research, and 1913, the Medical Research Committee was established (now the Medical Research Council).

During the First World War, he was based in Boulogne, where faced with innumerable war wounds his studies of them led him to conclude that what was vital (literally) in their treatment was their immediate cleaning and excising. After the war, he returned to St Mary's, where he attracted some highly talented young researchers, the most celebrated of whom was Alexander Fleming, who in 1929 discovered penicillin. This antibiotic's success tended to render obsolete Wright's work on stimulating the natural immune system, though by the early 21st century, though his vaccine approach was being explored again, especially in elation to cancer treatment. Fleming eventually replaced Wright as Director of what was by then the Institute of Pathology and Research at St Mary's in 1946.

 

Wright has been described by a former Dean of Medicine at Queen's, Belfast, thus:

"Unquestionably Wright was one of the great medical/scientific intellects of his time, indeed of many times. As an immunologist and bacteriologist he stands with Pasteur and other Titans.  He was knighted in 1906 the year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society who later struck a special medal for him since their coveted Gold Medal was considered inadequate. His work however led to one gigantic irony: Penicillin, discovered in his laboratory, opened up a new field in the treatment of infections thereby down-playing the potentials of active and passive immunisations which he, in the very same lab, had pioneered, and as a result for a long time their true potential remained neglected.  Partly for this reason everyone knows of the conscientious Fleming; fewer know of the genius Wright."

Wright was made a Freeman of the City of Belfast in 1912 and received an honorary degree from Queen's University, Belfast, amongst many other honours. His funeral in London was conducted by Canon Lames Owen Hannay (the novelist George Birmingham), who was a boyhood friend from Belfast days.

 

Richard Froggatt

 

The Dictionary Of Ulster Biography.


     

Sir Almroth Edward Wright (1861–1947), by Sir Gerald Kelly, 1933Sir Almroth Edward Wright (1861–1947), by Sir Gerald Kelly, 1933
 
Wright, Sir Almroth Edward (1861–1947), medical scientist, was born at Middleton Tyas, near Richmond, Yorkshire, on 10 August 1861, the second son of the Revd Charles Henry Hamilton Wright (1836–1909), an eminent Hebraist and militant protestant, and his wife, Ebba Johanna Dorothea, daughter of Nils Wilhelm Almroth, governor of the royal mint, Stockholm. Sir Charles Theodore Hagberg Wright, librarian to the London Library, was a younger brother. Wright was educated privately by his parents and tutors and then at the Royal Academical Institution, Belfast. At the age of seventeen he entered Trinity College, Dublin, and took his degree in modern literature in 1882, and his medical degree a year later. With travelling scholarships he spent a year in Germany studying under J. F. Cohnheim, C. Weigert, and C. F. W. Ludwig, three of the leading figures of the day in pathology and physiological chemistry. On his return to London he read law for a time and later took a clerkship at the Admiralty, which he said allowed him more than enough time to spend on medical research at the Brown Institution. In 1887 he moved to his first full-time post, as temporary demonstrator of pathology at Cambridge. He then moved to Sydney for two years and returned to England, via a further term in Germany, to work at the newly opened conjoint laboratories of the two royal colleges. Not every late nineteenth-century medical research scientist followed such a hectic schedule, but almost all had to improvise careers from short-term and often part-time appointments. In 1889 Wright married Jane Georgina Wilson (d. 1926), daughter of Robert Mackay Wilson JP, of Coolcarrigan, co. Kildare; they had two sons and one daughter.

In his first permanent post, that of professor of pathology at the army medical school at Netley, Hampshire, between 1892 and 1902, Wright changed the curriculum from its traditional emphasis on morbid anatomy towards the new areas of patho-physiology, bacteriology, and immunology, and, more significantly, he established a highly successful and productive research group. During these years he, and the group that became known as ‘Wright's Men’, explored many lines of research, but the most notable was the development, testing, and introduction of anti-typhoid inoculation. He also served on the Indian plague commission in 1898–9. Following various disputes with the army authorities, not least their reluctance to adopt his vaccine, Wright left the army medical school in 1902 to take up the appointment of pathologist at St Mary's Hospital, London, where he transformed a small department into one of Britain's leading medical research laboratories and in time an independent research institute. Wright retained his association with St Mary's until 1946.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, Wright's main work was the development and promotion of his system of vaccine therapy. This novel use for vaccines, which had previously been thought able only to prevent infections, was based on new ideas concerning the operation of the human immune system and complex laboratory methods for preparing vaccines and monitoring their effects. There was a considerable vogue for vaccine therapy in the 1900s which increased the demands for clinical laboratories in hospitals and general practice. Wright's work at this time had a broader significance, for it became the flagship of a project to recast medicine so that the laboratory replaced the clinic as the source and arbiter of medical knowledge. Wright challenged clinicians with his vision of future physicians who were reliant on the laboratory for diagnosis, prognosis, and therapies. Wright's department attracted patients seeking cures for chronic infections, and many of its staff were able to develop large private practices. Medical scientists from around the world came to see the system, and the department attracted support from the Parke Davis Company, who marketed its products. St Mary's made beds available for clinical research, the first such facility in Britain. However, the unalloyed success of vaccine therapy was transient and after 1910 its value was viewed with increasing scepticism, with many clinicians only too pleased to see laboratory medicine damaged and Wright's own professional standing dented.

However, Wright's interests and work had already moved on. In 1911 he went to South Africa to study pneumonia among the African workers in the Rand goldmines, and after failing with vaccine therapy he resorted to trials with a system of preventive inoculation similar to that developed for typhoid fever. On his return to England, Wright abandoned his large private practice and devoted himself to full-time research. He was appointed director of the bacteriological department of the newly founded Medical Research Committee (later Council) in 1913, but the outbreak of the First World War meant that he never took up the post. Instead he went to France as a temporary colonel in the Army Medical Service and set up a laboratory in the casino at Boulogne, where he worked on new methods to control wound infections. His ideas and methods were once again controversial, not least because he questioned the value of antiseptic surgery and promoted a complex alternative of saline treatments. The value of his methods was severely tested, largely because of the aggressive way in which it was promoted and the polemical exchanges that Wright was drawn into. None the less, he received three awards for his wartime researches—the Leconte prize of the Paris Académie des Sciences in 1915, the Buchanan gold medal of the Royal Society in 1917, and the first gold medal of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1920. After the war Wright returned to St Mary's and for a further twenty-five years continued to work on the problems of immunization, in particular the changes induced in the blood in response to vaccination by bacterial products. The continuing commercial success of vaccine therapy and Wright's connections were the basis for the conversion of his laboratories in 1930 into an Institute of Pathology and Research, which later became the Wright–Fleming Institute. Throughout the fifty years he was active in medical research, Wright was continually devising new and ingenious techniques. Many of these were described in his work Techniques of the Teat and Capillary Glass Tube (1912).

Wright's labours were not confined to medical science. The operations of the human mind were never far from his thoughts, and he strove incessantly to build up what he called a system of logic that would lead to truth. The greater part of his writing on this theme survived in manuscript and was published posthumously under the title Alethetropic Logic (1953) under the direction of his grandson Dr G. J. Romanes. Wright also published The Unexpurgated Case Against Woman Suffrage in 1913. The book, which expanded upon his notorious letter to The Times (28 March 1912), argued that women were physically, intellectually, and morally inferior to men, so that to concede them the suffrage would be harmful to the state. It drew a forceful response from Beatrice Webb in the New Statesman (1 Nov 1913).

Wright was knighted in 1906, and appointed CB in 1915 and KBE in 1919. He was elected FRS in 1906. He became a corresponding member of the Institut de France and was an officer of the order of the crown of Belgium, and a member of the order of St Sava, Serbia. He received the freedom of the city of Belfast in 1912 and was made an honorary fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, in 1931. He received honorary degrees from the universities of Dublin, Edinburgh, Belfast, Leeds, Paris, and Buenos Aires. He died on 30 April 1947 at his home, Southernwood, Farnham Common, Buckinghamshire, where his ashes were later scattered.

Wright is now principally remembered as the model for the bombastic Sir Colenso Ridgeon in George Bernard Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma and for his outspoken opposition to women's suffrage. Yet in the early decades of the twentieth century he was perhaps the leading medical scientist of his generation and was even styled as the British Pasteur. However, the verdict on his medical work became very mixed. The development of anti-typhoid inoculation has been widely regarded as a pioneering innovation in the development of preventive vaccines made of killed bacteria, and it undoubtedly saved many lives. Against this, a jaundiced view is now taken of his system of vaccine therapy, his methods of wound treatment, and the ideas on immunity that he elaborated in the 1920s and 1930s. The gap between the trajectory of his early career and his final standing as a medical eccentric should not obscure the fact that ‘The Celtic Siren’ was a crucial figure in twentieth-century British medicine.
 

Oxford DNB

Michael Worboys, ‘Wright, Sir Almroth Edward (1861–1947)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37032, accessed 28 May 2017]

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