The remarkable Dr Robertson
The latest Parasitology Paper of the Month is “The remarkable Dr Robertson” by Tansy C. Hammarton.
It’s strange to think that little over a year ago, my knowledge of Muriel Robertson was limited to the two paragraphs I’d read about her in ‘The Scottish Encounter with Tropical Disease’ , namely that she had studied in Glasgow in the early 1900s and later travelled to Africa where she made key discoveries about the life cycle of the African trypanosome parasite. I was therefore rather apprehensive when I was asked to talk about her at the Glasgow Encounters with Tropical Medicine symposium in January 2016. Why was I asked? Well, because I’m female and work on African trypanosomes. So, with those magnificent qualifications and furnished with a few biographies, I started researching Muriel’s life and work. Initially, I wondered how I could possibly fill a 30 minute talk. However, it soon became obvious, as I studied material from the archives, a blog by Muriel’s niece, Dorothy Heard, and (amazingly) made contact with some of Muriel’s descendants, that I needn’t have worried.
So what else did I discover? That Muriel’s research in Africa played a vital role in getting the massive Ugandan 1900-1920 Sleeping Sickness outbreak under control. And that she was able to, apparently effortlessly, switch research field, making significant contributions to the treatment and prevention of bacterial war wound infections and to the understanding of the immunology of trichomoniasis in cattle, which quickly led to the eradication of the disease in Northern Ireland. Her discoveries are all the more remarkable considering the social and technical times in which she lived. When she started out, women did not yet have the vote. There were no high-resolution fluorescent/electron microscopes or camera systems, so images had to be hand drawn and time-lapse microscopy was do-it-yourself. There were no off-the-shelf reagents, no online journals, no email. I suspect many a great modern scientist would have floundered in these conditions. Even more remarkable is that Muriel continued lab work after she lost an eye to glaucoma, which destroyed her 3D vision, making it difficult even to pour a cup of tea. Muriel’s vivacious and, at times, formidable personality, combined with her natural curiosity and superlative analytical abilities undoubtedly enabled her success. However, for someone so successful in the lab, it is funny to think that she struggled in the kitchen. One of her great nieces told me that before she taught Muriel to make white sauce and meringues, Muriel had just two staple dishes – boiled egg or chicken casserole.
Muriel was not just about science though; family life was very important too. Her great nieces and nephews affectionately called her Moo Moo and would be treated to afternoon tea after they had cleared the garden pond at the Limavady family home. They also remember Muriel chiding them to walk faster on mountain walks, with the advice ‘children, you must always carry sugar lumps for long walks’. It was clear she loved her time in Africa, often reminiscing about her walks in the Ruwenzori mountains in Uganda or up Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
Recognition of Muriel’s groundbreaking work is patchy today, with many, like me a year or so ago, ignorant of her contributions. I hope my article helps to redress this.
Read the paper “The remarkable Dr Robertson” in full for free until 31st January 2017.