Jerome Taylor: An illness that has defied medical science

Share
Related Topics

Although mankind's battle against the common cold can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt, where hieroglyphics of the nose have been found next to symbols for coryza (catarrh), it is only in the last 50 years that scientists began fully to understand what causes a cold and why it is that only humans and chimpanzees suffer from them.

Britain has led much of the most pioneering research to find a cure, through its Common Cold Unit which was set up in 1943.

European governments first began to realise just how devastating the illness could be in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Although flu is caused by different viruses to the common cold, the appalling loss of life in the 1918 flu epidemic placed viral respiratory infections at the top of the agenda for the newly formed Medical Research Council since many of the millions who died in the epidemic did so from cold-related illnesses such as pneumonia.

Chimpanzees were too expensive to import en masse, so during the first half of the 20th century British scientists began looking into how the common cold worked by conducting experiments on medical students at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London.

In 1940, the American government, through Harvard University, donated a pre-fabricated isolation hospital which was shipped across the Atlantic and used for the study of infectious diseases. After America's entry into the European theatre of the Second World War, the Harvard Hospital, at Harnham Hill near Salisbury in Wiltshire, became a field hospital but reverted to its original role following the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945.

The hospital became the Common Cold Unit and for the next 50 years, under the leadership of Christopher Andrewes and David Tyrrell – who went on to write a book about his experiences battling the cold – scientists from around the world began to unravel the mystery of the rhinoviruses that cause so much misery.

They placed advertisements in local newspapers asking for volunteers to spend time being infected with the common cold and then studied. Remarkably, more than 20,000 people volunteered for the tests which in the early days simply involved having another person's mucus inserted into their nasal cavity.

Understanding of the potential cause of colds paralleled the development of the germ theory and the discovery of viruses as causes of other illnesses. Over time, more and more complex experiments began to unravel the mysteries of the cold, including the discovery of rhinoviruses themselves. Scientists have also found that stress often plays a part in the onset of a cold and the debate continues as to whether vitamin C can help stave off winter sniffles.

But the holy grail of a cure was never found and the Common Cold Unit was wound down at the end of the Eighties.

The ability to transmit rhinoviruses to an animal other than a human or a chimp may bring the scientific community one step closer to eradicating the common cold.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped Commission, 1st yr OTE £30-£40k : SThree:...

Middleware Support Analyst

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Senior Java Developer/Designer

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: My client are looking fo...

Domino Developer and Administrator

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Domino ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Medical staff members burn clothes belonging to patients suffering from Ebola, at the French medical NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Monrovia  

The reality of Ebola: Buckets of chlorine in the streets, and no one shakes hands any more

Patrick Jamiru
Good2Go is the sexual consent app  

Good2Go: It's proper Sex and Relationships Education that will help end assault, not an iPhone app

Sian Norris
Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?