Fifty years ago, in the midst of the Vietnam war, I took my young family to live in West Virginia, where I could study the effects of coal dust on the lungs of miners. A strange thing to do, you might think, but in those days ambitious young doctors often improved their career prospects by taking such risks, and it worked out for me.
That same year, the British National Coal Board founded a research institute with charitable status in Edinburgh for the same reason – to analyse the results of its research into the relations between dust exposure and lung disease in coal miners. This new Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM) had a rather broader remit, but essentially its purpose was to find information about the causes of work-related diseases in order to aid their prevention. It was to develop a successful programme of research into prevention of industrial lung disease and ergonomics, with major European funding, illustrating the success British and Scottish science has always had in collaborating with our continental partners.
The nationalised coal industry in Britain ceased to exist in 1994, 47 years after its foundation in 1947. By then the IOM had succeeded in its main task and the health risks to miners had been substantially reduced by the industry's efforts on dust control. Its results influenced protective standards in mining in USA and worldwide. It had also acquired a substantial international reputation for its research on other risks to health, both at work and in the general environment, as for example, from asbestos and general air pollution as opposed to industrial pollution. Safety standards to protect workers from disease from coal, asbestos and other harmful agents, both in UK and overseas, had been based on IOM's research. Some of the story of this unique achievement is told in my book, 'Farewell King Coal'.
It is difficult to find anything happy to write about these days, but a story of triumph over adversity is something that always cheers me up. I had returned from USA to an NHS consultant physician post in Cardiff, and in 1978 moved again to Edinburgh, to direct the IOM for British Coal. A hazardous leap, as the next year Mrs Thatcher was elected and started to close the coal industry down. The IOM, although a charity, was dependent on the coal industry for employment of its 150 scientific and other staff. It was soon regarded as an unprofitable mine, necessitating job losses and increasing need to seek funding from other sources. By 1990, it had succeeded and avoided being closed, setting itself up as an independent self-funding research charity.
This first hurdle having been jumped, under its succeeding directors IOM widened its research further and developed a commercial company to sell health and safety services, with three branches in England, in order to subsidise the research. Much of the research now obtained European support and involved collaboration with partners in many European and other countries.
The work on industrial particle pollution had led to an interest in general air pollution and this led in turn to the now-familiar concept of the effects of very small particles and their role in air pollution. A developing interest in nanotechnology came from the research on air pollution particles. A branch was opened in Singapore to take advantage of a growing emphasis on education of health and safety professionals in the Far East.
A move from ownership by a nationalised industry to becoming a successful self-funding charity is probably unique for a scientific research institute, and this October the IOM will celebrate its 50th anniversary, having exceeded the life-span of its founder. It approaches this with a great deal of pride but especially gratitude to the dedicated and altruistic staff over those years who have made this possible. Now, with its many European collaborators, and in common with most who pursue altruistic scientific objectives, IOM faces the next major hurdle, erected by those who did not know what they were doing on behalf of a few who know only too well.