At the beginning of the twentieth century, tuberculosis was one of the UK’s most urgent health problems. A royal commission, entitled The Royal Commission Appointed to Inquire into the Relations of Human and Animal Tuberculosis, was set up in 1901. It aimed to find out whether tuberculosis in animals and humans was the same disease and whether animals and humans could infect each other. This page describes how, by 1919, the Commission had evolved into the independent Medical Research Council.
The first national fund for medical research
In 1911, Parliament passed the National Insurance Act, introduced by David Lloyd George as Chancellor of the Exchequer, which put in place schemes for health and unemployment insurance. One provision – paid for with a penny per working person per year - was sanatorium treatment for cases of tuberculosis and for ‘purposes of research’. This created a national fund for medical research and amounted to £57,000 a year - equivalent to nearly £4 million today.
A committee of the Insurance Commissioners in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales recommended there be a research organisation with an advisory council and an executive committee.
How the money was spent
The executive committee decided that the money should be spent on research carried out by investigators that it would employ and who would work in approved institutions. It also thought that some “exceptional” researchers should be given a salary and pension so that they could devote their whole time to research. “Efforts should also be made to retain for research young and talented investigators who would otherwise tend to drift into other lines,” the committee said.
The Medical Research Committee and Advisory Council was set up in 1913. It was in effect a single research organisation for the whole of the UK, with funds provided under the National Insurance Act for medical research, and not limited to TB. The members organised visits to researchers in laboratories throughout the UK and in 1913 submitted the first national ‘scheme of research’ for ministerial approval. The committee initiated its own research programmes and also responded to matters of medical concern raised by government departments, doing so through sub-committees and research units specialising in specific areas. It also provided funding for research by outside bodies or individuals, complementing the research resources of universities and hospitals.
The first central institute
In 1914 the committee decided to set up a central research institute with hospital beds for clinical research and a statistical department. They chose Hampstead in north London as the site for the institute, and said that it should have a chief director who was the best “obtainable at any price”. The institute opened in 1920 and later became the MRC National Institute for Medical Research.
The MRC comes into being
After the First World War, in 1918, a Ministry of Health for England and Wales was proposed, which would be responsible for National Health Insurance. The Ministry of Health Act in 1919 transferred the relevant powers of the Insurance Commissioners to the new Minister of Health. There was also discussion about whether to merge the MRC with the new Ministry. But as the MRC covered a wider medical research field, it remained separate and became the Medical Research Council.
The new council had the same members and functions as the Medical Research Committee and Advisory Council. The 1919 Act, however, required it to have a Royal Charter, and the MRC became a corporation, capable of holding property. It also had new direction at ministerial level, with a committee consisting of the Minister of Health, Secretary for Scotland and Chief Secretary for Ireland, which was responsible for funding the council. However, the MRC had its own executive powers, unlike the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, a government department set up in 1915 to oversee scientific research and to encourage the application of science to industry.
Independence from government
The idea that the MRC should make scientific decisions independently from government was first proposed in a 1918 report by a committee led by Lord Richard Haldane. It became known as the ‘Haldane Principle’.
The report said: “Although the operations of the Medical Research Committee are within the province of the Minister responsible for Health Insurance…the Minister relies…upon the MRC to select the objects upon which they will spend their income, and to frame schemes for the efficient and economical performance of their work.”
Find out more
The MRC Corporate Archives are held at:
The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU, UK
Tel 020 8876 3444
Fax 020 8878 8905
The National Archives website includes a short history of the MRC.
Half a Century of Medical Research. A. Landsborough Thomson (HMSO 1978). A comprehensive history of the MRC, available from The Stationery Office.
The MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) was built in Cambridge in 1962 to bring together several distinguished MRC-funded Cambridge research groups.
The MRC National Institute for Medical Research, the MRC’s first research centre, was established in London in 1920.