Dr David Tyrrell

Virologist who investigated the causes of the common cold
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The name David Tyrrell will forever be associated with the discovery of the common cold viruses and our understanding of the common cold. He was one of a diminishing breed of physician-scientists whose medical training and early introduction to the burgeoning world of virology provided him with the background and skills for the pioneering work that occupied most of his life.

David Arthur John Tyrrell, clinical virologist: born Ashford, Middlesex 19 June 1925; Assistant, Rockefeller Institute, New York 1951-54; staff, Virus Research Laboratory, Sheffield 1954-57; staff, MRC Common Cold Unit, Salisbury 1957-90, Director 1982-90; FRS 1970; Deputy Director, Clinical Research Centre, Northwick Park and Head of the Division of Communicable Diseases 1970-84; CBE 1980; married 1950 Dr Moyra Wylie (two daughters, and one son deceased); died Salisbury, Wiltshire 2 May 2005.

The name David Tyrrell will forever be associated with the discovery of the common cold viruses and our understanding of the common cold. He was one of a diminishing breed of physician-scientists whose medical training and early introduction to the burgeoning world of virology provided him with the background and skills for the pioneering work that occupied most of his life.

He was born in Ashford, Middlesex (now Surrey), in 1925. His father trained in accountancy; his mother was a teacher with a special interest in French and Mathematics. At primary school David was "dreamy, forgetful and untidy" but at grammar school, at first at County School, Ashford, he "enjoyed being at the top of the class".

In 1940 the family moved to Sheffield and after further schooling at King Edward VII School, David Tyrrell went to university there. He was exempted from military service because of an eye problem that culminated in surgery for a detached retina. In later years, some were curious as to why he was so happy with a monocular microscope when the binocular version had come to stay.

Originally, Tyrrell had contemplated school-teaching as a career, but at Sheffield the idea dissipated as he disliked the school atmosphere and the personality of most of the teachers. Although he had not taken biology at school, on a holiday in Scotland, during inclement weather, he read the whole of a zoology textbook, finding the malarial life cycle particularly fascinating. It is not surprising, therefore, that he entered medical school at Sheffield, nor that he left with an honours degree in 1964 and gained membership of the Royal College of Physicians a year later.

Then, while working as a physician in Sheffield he had his first brush with virology when, with his wife, Moyra, a general practitioner (whom he had married in 1950), he investigated an outbreak of poliomyelitis. Soon after, in 1951 he responded to a request for someone to work in Frank Horsfall's Virology Laboratory at the Rockefeller Institute in New York. He stayed for three years and experienced a disciplined approach to laboratory experimentation, learning to think in depth about the interaction between viruses and cells.

Invited back to Sheffield in 1954 by Charles Stuart-Harris, the Professor of Medicine, Tyrrell, as one of the External Scientific Staff of the Medical Research Council (MRC), was surprised one day when the Secretary of the MRC, Sir Harold Himsworth, asked him whether he would be willing to go to the Common Cold Unit (CCU), in Salisbury, Wiltshire, and attempt to grow the common cold virus.

In the early part of the Second World War the American Red Cross-Harvard Hospital had been brought across the Atlantic as prefabricated wooden units. After assembly, the hospital had opened in 1941 to deal with epidemics of infectious disease that might occur during the war, but thereafter it had been in disuse. Dr (later Sir) Christopher Andrewes, the virologist who with Patrick Laidlaw and Wilson Smith first isolated the influenza virus, saw it as being ideal for housing volunteers who could be isolated from each other, and facilitate work on the common cold. The first volunteers arrived in July 1946.

Tyrrell came to the Common Cold Unit in 1957 when it had been determined that nasal secretions from subjects who had colds definitely contained a virus. Nevertheless, the virus had not been grown in the laboratory. Despite this, the time seemed ripe because elsewhere other viruses, poliomyelitis for example, had been grown in tissue cells in test tubes. Tyrrell took a unique approach, for example using well-oxygenated cells, kept at 33C, the temperature within the nose, rather than the higher temperature of the body.

It provided the breakthrough and in January 1960 exciting papers, describing the success of isolating and growing rhinoviruses, as they became known, were published in The Lancet. The notion of "the common cold virus" was dispelled as, subsequently, different types of rhinoviruses, more than 100, were discovered, as were completely different viruses, coronaviruses, that also cause colds. Not surprisingly, Tyrrell gained a worldwide reputation, as did the unusual volunteer set-up.

In 1967, Tyrrell moved to head the Division of Communicable Diseases at the MRC's Clinical Research Centre (CRC), built in association with Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow, Middlesex. He was appointed Deputy Director of the CRC in 1970 but visited the CCU regularly, maintaining control of the work there. Part of this involved determining the effectiveness of antiviral drugs, while at the CRC there were studies on gastro- intestinal and respiratory infections in children, as well as on febrile convulsions, encephalitis and schizophrenia. Inevitably in his position, and with such a wealth of knowledge, Tyrrell chaired various government committees, those concerned with dangerous pathogens and with CJD/BSE, being just two of many.

The impending closure of the CRC, a political decision by the MRC, was a major reason for Tyrrell's return full-time to the CCU in 1985. The closure of the CCU a few years later, largely due to financial restraints, came at a time when good work was still being undertaken. Tyrrell held the view that both decisions were not in the interests of scientific progress but, nevertheless, recognised that the MRC had given him unrivalled opportunities for research.

He once said, "People say that place never found the cold cure, did it?" Of course, the enlightened realised that the finding of so many different viruses made the possibility of an effective vaccine hopeless. So far as David Tyrrell was concerned, there could be no self-recrimination. His was a star-studded career, which the majority of research investigators can only dream about.

David Taylor-Robinson



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