Alexander Glenny

GLENNY, Alexander 1882-1965. Immunologist.

Alexander Thomas Glenny was born in Camberwell on 18th September 1882, the youngest of six children born to Thomas Armstrong Glenny, a stockbroker’s clerk from Co Sligo in Ireland, and Elizabeth Foreman. Glenny was brought up in the Plymouth Brethren tradition and later attributed his diffidence and shyness to its strict code. He was one of the first LCC scholarship boys at Alleyn’s School where he excelled by winning the school prize for mathematics. He gained a scholarship to University College, London and intended to become an actuary but fate intervened. Dr Baker, at that time a chemistry master at Dulwich College but later Headmaster of Alleyn’s, had a connection to the Wellcome Physiological Research Laboratories (WPRL) which had moved to Brockwell Hall, Herne Hill in 1899.

The Laboratories’ Director, Dr Walter Dowson, asked Dr Baker to recommend two boys as laboratory assistants, on the understanding that they would have the opportunity to study for a science degree. Dr Baker was clearly influential at Alleyn’s School as well as Dulwich College and thus Glenny was chosen as one of the technicians, going to work for Dr Dowson in the Bacteriological Laboratory in 1899. Taking a job at Wellcome was a risky move at the time. It meant giving up his place at University College to work in a field which was still considered by the scientific establishment with some scepticism, especially, as in the case of Wellcome, where the work was being funded by a business.

At this time Glenny was still living with his parents in Rosendale Road together with his brother, a brilliant civil servant at the Board of Trade, his sister, a school teacher, and their maid of all work, Annie. He kept up a strong connection to his old school, continuing to play football as an Old Boy and acting as scorer for the Alleyn’s cricket team for many years. In 1900 while working as a lab technician, Glenny began studying mathematics and physics at Chelsea Polytechnic, graduating in 1905 with an external BSc in Science from London University. He also studied botany and zoology at Chelsea Polytechnic.

At Wellcome, Glenny was involved in producing anti-toxin sera used to fight diphtheria, a deadly disease at the time. Research had shown that people could be immunised against diphtheria with a therapeutic serum prepared in horses but it was difficult to produce the serum in large quantities and to a high standard of purity.

An early realisation that animal experimentation was essential for work in the bacteriological lab led Wellcome to apply for registration under the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act. It took a while and the discussions went as far as government level but in 1909 Wellcome became the first commercial lab to achieve registration, a status which had previously been awarded only to universities or medical establishments and this was where Glenny worked for the rest of his career.

Glenny’s methodical organisation skills, capacity for absorbing data, and ability to calculate probabilities almost instantaneously, made his department highly effective. He quickly made changes in the system for routine inoculation of the horses with diphtheria toxin which would yield a vast improvement in results. In 1906 he was promoted to head of the immunology department.

On 7th July 1910 he married Emma Blanche Lillian Gibbs at Wandsworth Registry Office; Emma was born in Southwark in 1886 and was the daughter of a licensed victualler. After his marriage Glenny joined the Church of England and later became a member of his Church Council. The Glennys set up home in Streatham and had three children: John was born in 1913, Peter followed in 1915 and Barbara in 1918.

In 1921 the Laboratories moved from Herne Hill to Langley Park in Beckenham and Glenny’s organisation of the move was considered legendary in the company for years after, both for the systematic arrangement of the vast amount of documents and materials used by the lab which needed to be transported safely and for the fact that not a single item was mislaid during the move. Once settled in Langley Park, he continued his commercial work while also pursuing his own research interests. Henry Wellcome encouraged his scientists to follow a broad scientific agenda as well as their commercial responsibilities. This gave the company scientific credibility as it ensured the name of Wellcome appeared regularly in articles in the medical and scientific literature. At the time it was important for commercial companies to show academic rigour as the quality and independence of their research was often brought into question. It was considered that if scientists must follow a new and unfamiliar field such as medical research, the only fitting place would be within the remit of a teaching post in a medical school, certainly not in a commercial concern.

Glenny’s fundamental research was related to the timing of antibody production and his work on responses in immunised animals was one of his most outstanding contributions to medical research. Through experiments on guinea pigs, rabbits, goats, sheep, horses, and humans, Glenny and his colleagues worked out the basis for the timing schedules of immunisation, both of people and of animals, which are still used today. Another discovery was that diphtheria toxin, detoxified by formalin treatment, retained its ability to induce antidotes when injected into animals. Glenny was able to inject massive doses of the toxin into horses which in turn produced massive quantities of the antidote, thus enabling mass immunisation to become possible. Glenny also increased the effectiveness of diphtheria toxoid by treating it with aluminum salts. He was the first to propose immunising healthy children with anti-diphtheria serum rather than waiting for the disease to take hold and went on to develop the standard vaccine, now used worldwide All these discoveries were important contributions to medical advancement and laid the foundations for new immunisation procedures and products for both humans and animals.

Demand for the company’s products had increased hugely during World War One and by 1939, when war broke out again, Glenny and his team were successfully meeting even greater demands, particularly for tetanus and gas-gangrene antitoxins. The lab also needed to produce vast supplies for the mass diphtheria immunisation campaign launched in 1940, as well as the immunisation of the British armed forces in 1941. It was the lab’s proud boast that ‘every customer got his material on or before the promised date’ even during the war. There was sadness in his private life at this time, however, as his son, Peter, who was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, died in 1940. A dispatch rider at an airfield, Peter Glenny was sent from a control tower during the blackout to collect a delayed message. In the dark he collided head-on with a messenger from the opposite control tower who was delivering the lost message and was killed.

Glenny was not considered an easy man to get on with, either on a personal or a professional basis. He did not suffer fools gladly, particularly those with no head for figures. He was willing to help junior colleagues but his help came with strident criticism of both their ideas and their methods and he inspired gratitude rather than affection in his team. He never praised anyone, saying it was the worse of insults to praise anyone for doing a good job as it was the least they could do. It may have been his extreme shyness (caused, he thought, by his early upbringing according to Plymouth Brethren principles) which triggered his rather caustic comments. His family, however, saw a different side. His wife very much ruled the roost at home and he was affectionately known as ‘Pop’. To his grandson he seemed ‘a slightly other-worldly, friendly figure’, who taught him Latin tags and inspired him to follow a career in mathematics.

It has been suggested that Glenny did not consider he received the acclaim his outstanding contributions deserved, partly due to working in a commercial concern and partly due to not having a medical background. If he was under-recognised it could also have been because his articles were opaque in their density, sometimes badly written and often delivered some time after the work described within them had been undertaken. In fact he sometimes sparked arguments with associates outside Wellcome over his lack of credit for work which it was later discovered he had not yet published. Public recognition came towards the end of his career and Glenny was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1944. In 1953 he was awarded both the Edward Jenner Medal for ‘distinguished work in epidemiological research’ and also the Addingham Gold Medal for ‘making the most valuable discovery for relieving pains and suffering in humanity’.

Sir Henry Dale, who replaced Dowson as Director of the Laboratories, said of Glenny, “I had formed a general respect for his quiet competence... He was responsible for everything that was necessary… I had splendid co-operation from him, and we enjoyed working together”. Having spent the whole of his career at Wellcome, Glenny retired in 1947 after 48 years’ service. For the next thirteen years he continued to write up his large volume of unpublished research. His last paper was published in 1955 when he was 73.

by Sharon O’Connor