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On Wednesday 15 June 2016, as part of Glasgow Science Festival, Kevin O’Dell (Professor of Behavioural Genetics, School of Life Sciences), Moira Rankin (Senior Archivist at University of Glasgow Archives) and Rachel Egan (Heritage Engagement Officer) hosted a Zika Virus: Present, Past and Future event, which was supported by the Glasgow Centre for International Development and introduced by Vice Principal Professor John Briggs.

The event panel comprised:

•        Dr Claire Donald who works at the Centre for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow, at the forefront of Zika virus research, who explained the scientific background of the Zika virus, and the current research efforts aimed at understanding and preventing the virus.

•        Eleanor Tiplady the BBSRC Doctoral Training programme student who presented the findings of an internship studying original materials stored in the University of Glasgow Archives pertaining to the discovery of the Zika virus 70 years ago.

•        Dr Heather Ferguson who is studying the ecology of the Zika virus at the Boyd Orr Centre for Population and Ecosystem Health, who discussed the ecology and potential future outcomes for the current Zika virus crisis. 

In early 2016 Moira rediscovered Professor Alexander Haddow’s original handwritten research documents relating to the first known identification of the Zika virus. Haddow was a former Professor at the University of Glasgow, and a key member of the investigative team who originally discovered the Zika virus. These documents had been living largely undisturbed in the University Archives since Haddow’s death in 1978. 

Appreciating the potential significance of the find, Moira and Kevin secured the services of BBSRC Doctoral Training Programme student Eleanor Tiplady who undertook a three-month internship working on the Alexander Haddow archive. With significant support and guidance from Rachael Egan, Eleanor investigated, analysed and catalogued Haddow’s original handwritten research documents relating to the first known identification of the Zika virus. The papers included hand-drawn graphs, slides depicting the forests in Uganda, and records of mosquitoes caught there by researchers. 

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On Tuesday 24 May 2016 this work was covered by ITV’s News at Ten and a variety of other news outlets. Interest in Haddow’s original documents continues, with archive material appearing at the Inflammatory Neuropathy Consortium of the Peripheral Nerve Society Meeting in Glasgow (June 2016), Ted-Ex Glasgow (July 2016) and Explorathon Glasgow (September 2016).

 A Valuable Resource 

The University of Glasgow Archives is a real treasure trove of items, relevant to the entire history of the University since its creation in 1451. It includes University related records deposited by staff, alumni and associated organisations, and the records of predecessor institutions.  As such, the University Archives are an outstanding resource for Scotland’s educational, intellectual and cultural history. 

Professor Kevin O’Dell first began working with GU Archives in 2006. At that point Moira Rankin had secured funding that enabled the University to play a key role in the Wellcome Trust’s Codebreakers project. The objective of Codebreakers was to create an online research resource for the history of genetics, including digitised books and archives from the Wellcome Library and partner institutions. Through the foresight of Moira and her colleagues, three of the twenty-two digitised archives are those of former University of Glasgow Geneticists:

  • Guido Pontecorvo, who led an international centre for genetics research, pioneering the study of genetics in fungi and cultured mammalian cells. 
  • Jim Renwick, who pioneered the use of statistical techniques and genetic markers to map human disease genes, and was among the first to use computers to locate genetic disorders. 
  • Malcolm Ferguson Smith, who was one of the first geneticists to provide a diagnostic and counselling service to patients with genetic conditions.

Since that initial collaboration on the Codebreakers project, Moira and Kevin have worked on several other teaching and public engagement projects. This includes hosting the Genetics: Past, Present & Future event at Glasgow Science Festival in June 2013, at which the then 82-year-old Malcolm Ferguson Smith was the honoured guest. They also hosted the Sixth International Workshop on the History of Human Genetics in June 2015.

Along with Calum Brown and Malcolm Nicolson, they have acquired funding for Paula Blair to undertake a History of Medicine PhD on the life and work of Malcolm Ferguson Smith. In addition, they hosted the three-month internship of BBSRC Doctoral Training Programme student Caitlin Jukes, who built a public engagement project around the University of Glasgow’s syphilis collection. More recently they have also, with the help of various colleagues at GU Archives, co-supervised several final year undergraduate students undertaking public engagement research projects on a variety of Archive-related topics.