Lives of the fellows

David Arthur John Tyrrell

b.19 June 1925 d.2 May 2005
CBE(1980) MB ChB Sheffield(1948) MRCP(1949) MD(1953) FRCPath(1964) FRCP(1965) FRS(1970) FRCPath(1971) Hon DSc(1979) Hon MD Southampton(1990)

David Tyrrell, a clinical virologist, ran the Common Cold Unit at Salisbury for most of its existence. He was born in Ashford, Middlesex, the son of Sidney Charles Tyrrell, an accountant, and Agnes Kate Tyrrell née Blewett, a teacher with a special interest in French and mathematics. Tyrrell attended Echelford Primary School, Ashford, and then, once the family had moved to Sheffield in 1940, King Edward VII School. Although he initially thought about a teaching career, he went on to study medicine at Sheffield University, and qualified in 1948.

He was exempted from military service because of an eye problem: he eventually had surgery for a detached retina. He held junior posts in Sheffield and became interested in virology. From 1951 he held a three-year research fellowship in Frank L Horsfall’s virology laboratory at the Rockefeller Institute Hospital, New York, where he received a thorough training in virology and research methods.

In the summer of 1954 he returned to Sheffield, where Sir Charles Stuart-Harris [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.477], the then professor of medicine, and C P Beattie, had started a virus research laboratory at Lodge Moor Hospital. There he worked with adenoviruses, which had just been discovered.

During part of his time in Sheffield he was on the external scientific staff of the Medical Research Council (MRC), and in 1957 he was asked by the secretary of the MRC, Sir Harold Himsworth [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.238] to join the Common Cold Unit (then called the Common Cold Research Unit) in Salisbury, Wiltshire, to attempt to cultivate the common cold virus.

The hospital at Salisbury had opened in the early part of the Second World War, constructed using prefabricated wooden units brought over from the United States, and was originally designed to deal with possible wartime epidemics of infectious disease. After the war, the virologist Sir Christopher Andrewes [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.8], who with Patrick Laidlaw [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.236] and Wilson Smith [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.385], had discovered the human influenza A virus in 1933, proposed that the hospital could be used to house volunteers taking part in experiments on the common cold. The new unit opened in July 1946 and soon attracted willing volunteers content to spend an expenses-paid, ten-day break in the Wiltshire countryside.

When Tyrrell joined the Common Cold Unit, it had been established that nasal secretions from subjects with colds contained a virus, but the virus had not been grown in the laboratory. Tyrrell decided to attempt to grow the virus on well-oxygenated cells kept at 33oC, the temperature within the nose. This provided the breakthrough needed, and in January 1960 papers describing these rhinoviruses, as they came to be known, were published in The Lancet (‘Some virus isolations from common colds. I. Experiments employing human volunteers’ Lancet. 1960 Jan 30;1[7118]:235-7, ‘Some virus isolations from common colds. II. Virus interference in tissue cultures’ Lancet. 1960 Jan 30;1[7118]:237-9, ‘Some virus isolations from common colds. III. Cytopathic effects in tissue cultures’ Lancet. 1960 Jan 30;1[7118]:239-42). More than 100 such rhinoviruses were discovered, as well as coronaviruses (which also cause colds), meaning the search for a single, effective anti-viral treatment for the cold common came to look increasingly futile.

Tyrrell eventually became head of the Common Cold Unit. In 1967, he had moved to head the division of communicable diseases at the MRC’s Clinical Research Centre (CRC) at Northwick Park, but continued to oversee the work at Salisbury, where he investigated the effectiveness of antiviral drugs. He turned his attention to the problem of acute diarrhoea in infants and adults, and looked into possible viral causes. In 1970 he became deputy director of the CRC. Studies on gastrointestinal and respiratory infections in children, febrile convulsions, encephalitis and schizophrenia were set up.

The impending closure of the CRC was a major reason for Tyrrell’s return to the Common Cold Unit in 1985. The unit was then closed a few years later, on Tyrrell’s retirement, largely for financial reasons.

Tyrrell was honoured with a CBE in 1980. He was awarded honorary degrees from the universities of Sheffield and Southampton, and gained the Stewart prize of the British Medical Association in 1977, and the Ambuj Nath Bose prize in 1983 and the Conway Evans prize in 1986 of the Royal College of Physicians.

After his retirement, he moved to the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research at Porton Down, where he had an office. With Michael Fielder, he wrote Cold wars: the fight against the common cold (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002) – a detailed history of the CCU and research on the common cold. He was also involved with the research committee of the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Research Foundation (CFSRF) and supported efforts to establish a biological basis for the disease. He also chaired the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee and other government committees, including those on Aids and influenza.

Tyrrell was a committed Christian, and in his spare time was an organist and choirmaster at his local church. He was a former president of the Christian Medical Fellowship. He married Moyra Wylie in 1950. He was survived by his wife and their two daughters, Frances and Susan. A son predeceased him.

RCP editor

[MRC News Sept 1990, no.48, p.37; The Independent 30 May 2005; The Lancet Volume 365, Issue 9477, Page 2084, 18 June 2005; Brit.med.J., 2005 330 1451; Biogr Mems Fell R Soc 2007 53, 349-363; Who was who Vol.11 2001-2005 London, A & C Black, 2006, p.534]

(Volume XII, page web)

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