Blog post as part of a series by Maria Amvrosiou for her fourth-year public engagement project.
Malcolm Ferguson-Smith has been characterised as one of the most innovative and productive scientists of his generation. His tremendous contribution to diagnostics, genetic counselling, gene mapping and cytogenetics is well-accredited by the scientific community. An important part of his work, spanning the period 1957-2008, is held by the University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections. Malcolm Ferguson-Smith was an alumnus and further on, a professor in the University of Glasgow.
Malcom Ferguson-Smith is strongly connected with the University of Glasgow. He was born in 1931, in Glasgow and graduated MB ChB from the university in 1955. After he moved to Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore as a Fellow in Medicine at the School of Medicine from 1959 to 1961 he decided to return back to his birthplace, aiming to introduce genetics into medical practice so he took his lectureship in the University of Glasgow, Department of Genetics. In 1973, he was then appointed a professor of Medical Genetics in the University of Glasgow, where he stayed until 1987.
While studying the archive material, I came across an important aspect of Ferguson-Smith’s life; his involvement in the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) Inquiry. In 1998, he was invited to be a member of the committee which was assigned to review the original response and actions of the UK Government, leading up the BSE emergence, widely known as Mad Cows disease, in the UK. His role in the committee was to assess and evaluate the scientific evidence. As he argued, the examination of facts and evidence of that time was proved to be inadequate and not clearly reviewed to predict the BSE epidemic.
UGC 188/1/2/12 Press-release regarding Ferguson-Smith participation in BSE Inquiry committee.
It soon became of my interest to further research the BSE crisis in the UK and the related BSE Inquiry that Ferguson-Smith was hugely involved in. BSE or as it is more widely known, Mad Cows disease, is a disease found within the group of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs). TSEs are lethal degenerative diseases which affect the neurons, the building blocks of the nervous system, and are associated with the formation of tiny pores in the brain which give the characteristic “spongy” appearance. Unlike other common diseases, mainly caused by microbes, TSEs are caused by prions. Prions are proteins that normally exist in the body and have various functions. However, prions proteins can occasionally acquire a different three-dimensional shape that is considered highly pathogenic and is associated with TSEs. Symptoms of TSEs include damage in the brain function, uncoordinated movements, and personality and memory changes, symptoms that deteriorate over time.
The archive material consists not so much of research material during his involvement in the BSE Inquiry, but mostly material of the years to come. Correspondence, formal documents, statements and comments from other scientists and some published articles, make-up the biggest part of this section of his archive. It can be argued that the material hugely reflects his continuing interest in BSE and its correlation to the human equivalent disease form, Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), even after his mission in the BSE Inquiry was completed. Furthermore, the archive contains some information on his theory regarding the BSE origin. Material is found under the main Malcolm Andrew Ferguson-Smith collection, under the section UGC 188/9, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE).
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Archiveshub.ac.uk. (2016). Papers of Malcolm Andrew Ferguson-Smith, Geneticist, Professor of Medical Genetics, University of Glasgow, Scotland – Archives Hub. [online] Available at: http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb248-ugc188 [Accessed 2Dec. 2016].
Clarke, A., Jackson, G. and Collinge, J. (2001). The molecular biology of prion propagation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, [online] 356(1406), pp.185-195. Available at: http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/royptb/356/1406/185.full.pdf [Accessed 30 Sep. 2015].
Ferguson-Smith, M. (2003). Malcolm Ferguson-Smith – Curriculum vitae. [PDF] Available at: http://www.ae-info.org/ae/Member/Ferguson-Smith_Malcolm/CV [Accessed 8 Oct. 2016].
Ferguson-Smith, M. (2015). Ferguson-Smith, Malcolm – transcript of a video interview. [PDF] Available at: http://www.histmodbiomed.org/file/ferguson-smith-malcolm-transcript-video-interviewpdf [Accessed 2Dec. 2016].
Prusiner, S. (2013). Biology and Genetics of Prions Causing Neurodegeneration. Annu. Rev. Genet., [online] 47(1), pp.601-623. Available at: http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-genet-110711-155524 [Accessed 1 Oct. 2015].