Tuesday, 27 November 2012

In which I relate the time I had a runny nose

I love the way a Google search for one thing can lead you down a path to something totally different. Here's an example of such serendipity from today.

I'm reading a book on Fidel Castro and wanted some information on an aspect of the Cold War. I searched on 'cold war' and in the listings there was a citation for a book called 'Cold Wars', the author of which was David Tyrell. Ah, says I, I've heard of him. Wasn't he the director of the Common Cold Research Unit at Salisbury? Indeed he was and this reminded me that I had been a volunteer at the CCRU in 1967 (was it Easter 1967?). In retrospect  it was a rather strangely British experience.

The CCRU was established in the early 1950s to investigate aspects of the common cold in healthy human volunteers. It was based in a camp that once was a war time hospital (Harvard Hospital) on the outskirts of Salisbury - close to, but completely separate from, the Microbiological Research Establishment at Porton Down. You know, the place where the UK's microbiological and chemical weapon research was/is carried out. Incidentally, this proximity lead to a long held suspicion that volunteers at the CCRU were being used as guinea pigs for sinister purposes. As far as I know this was never the case.
The trials at the CCRU were advertised in the press as two weeks in a holiday camp environment with good food and a time to relax. With, almost as an afterthought, the chance to help cure the world of the common cold. I fell for the hype and thought it was just the space I needed to revise for some impending chemistry exams. I applied, was accepted and soon had a rail travel pass to Salisbury, where a motley group met up and were taken to the unit in what looked like an WW2 army reject lorry. Briefly, here's what the stay at the unit involved:

*  Rather than the holiday camp promised in the advertisement, the unit was more like a concentration camp. Row upon row of barrack like buildings, giving extremely basic accommodation. Take a look at the postcard above - Stalag 17 spring to mind? I was half expecting Steve McQueen to come sailing over the fence on his motorbike.
*  After a very cursory medical examination, each of us were allocated to our 'chalets' in groups of twos or threes. I shared with somebody English - and that is all that I can remember of him. I expect I made just as lasting an impression on him as well.
*  Each trial lasted 12 days. The first 3 days were there to pick up anyone who had brought a cold along with them. If they had, they were excluded from the trial and given a ticket home. Then drops were administered (contents depended on the nature of the trial and the need for a dummy control). The guiding mantra was it takes 3 days to catch a cold, 3 days to have the cold and 3 days for the cold to go. So, once the drops were up your nose, the 9 day cycle started.
*  Over the 9 day period, each of us had to keep a daily diary of how we felt, what our tempertature was at regular intervals and how many disposable tissues we had used. Every now and again, a medic popped in to review progress. I don't recall getting a cold and I may very well have been given the placebo. Those involved in running each trial were never told the details of what they were investigating. I presume it was done this way to avoid any experimental/observer bias. A funny thing about these visits was the fact that the medics covered themselves in a protective barrier to prevent us catching something off them. In reality, this protective barrier was a massive flexible perspex bag. It was difficult to keep a straight face as they crinkled their way into the room.
*  Feeding time was fun. Food was delivered to each chalet by a man in a brown coat. He left thermos flasks, bottles etc in a box outside and then rang a bell to let us know it was there. We then had to wait 5 minutes to allow him to clear the area before bringing it in. I don't remember the food at all and can only surmise that it was adequate but unmemorable. I do remember that we had a daily allowance of 1 pint of bottled beer per person - such generosity.
*  Entertainment during the stay was somewhat limited. Within the chalet, apart from any reading material you brought in, there was a single ancient radio and a few dog-eared board games. And the world knows how much I love board games. Luckily my chalet companion was as much a fan as I was so my tolerance was not tested.
*  We were allowed to walk around the grounds and beyond - as long as we did not come within 200 yards or so of anyone else. To avoid contamination, we had face masks and the dreaded perspex bag to don if it looked as if the 200 yard barrier was going to be transgressed. With typical British phlegm no-one we met on our jaunts turned a hair at being confronted by a walking plastic bag.

At the end of our incarceration, we each had another cursory medical examination (along the lines of "I see you are still standing so you must be OK") and were then taken back to the station. Thinking about it, we were packed off with almost indecent haste - and there was no follow-up at all. Gone and very quickly forgotten it would appear. From a distance of over 40 years, it was a great experience but I'm not sure how effective the research proved to be. I've got a cold as I type this - sniff, sniff.

Post script: the CCRU closed in 1990 and the site is now a housing estate (what else?). The function has been transferred to Cardiff University and I'm willing to bet that any studies they conduct are not so much fun for the participants.

And I forgot to mention that we received no payment for our week on the Costa del Salisbury.

1 comment:

Tim Wagg said...


This may strike you as particularly random but I have come across your posting as I'm currently researching the Common Cold Unit and I'd be keen to hear more of your story.

Would you be able to drop me an email on t.wagg@mavericktv.co.uk and we can arrange a time to talk directly maybe?

Apologies for the lack of info, as I am posting this online I need to ensure I don't give too much away.

Kind Regards,