In 1983, Sir David Weatherall (the first director of the Institute) approached the Medical Research Council (MRC) with the suggestion that a small research institute could be developed within the Oxford Clinical School. This would house several groups who wished to directly apply the techniques of molecular and cell biology to study human disease, or, as Sir David describes it, to focus on ‘what was rather hopefully called molecular haematology’ (see blog post here).
The Institute was developed as a partnership between the MRC and several medical charities. A sum of just over £7 million was raised through the generous support of the MRC, Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF – now CRUK), Wolfson Foundation, E.P. Abraham Research Fund, Wellcome Trust and the Nuffield Medical Trustees, University of Oxford. The Institute was opened on 17th July 1989, by HRH The Princess Royal, and was renamed the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine on the retirement of the first Director in 2000.
Thanks to a Wellcome and HEFC SRIF grant, this was extended in 2002-4 to form one building with a new floor, new links between the original two buildings and a reconfigured central interaction space. There are now three large floors of research laboratories and large central social area for the staff together with a library, seminar and conference rooms. The Institute currently houses over 450 clinical and non-clinical scientific, technical and support staff from all over the world. In 2011, the Institute was renamed the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine as part of a Strategic Alliance between the MRC and the University of Oxford.
As the format of the Institute was a new concept that had not been attempted before, its development and progress has been of particular interest for future planning of research in the increasingly important area of molecular medicine. It is revolutionising cancer research, offers new approaches to vaccines, has spawned a biotechnology industry that is already producing a wide range of diagnostic and therapeutic agents and, in the longer term, promises to play a major role in clarifying the causes of some of the major unsolved mysteries of modern medicine: heart disease, hypertension, major psychiatric illness, rheumatic disease and many others.
Since its opening in 1989, scientists working at the Institute have made many notable discoveries, including critical advances in our understanding of HIV, the development of vaccines for meningitis, and the discovery of genes that allow the immune system to evade the malaria parasite.
In 1997, the Institute was awarded the prestigious Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education by Her Majesty the Queen. The citation states, “this is an exceptional and successful new approach to a crucial field of science. It has rapidly established recognition as a world-class centre of excellence and has a profound influence in the development of molecular medicine internationally”.
Since its foundation, the WIMM has hosted 14 Fellows of the Royal Society. In addition, we currently host 16 Fellows of the Academy of Medical Sciences and 10 members of EMBO. The first Director, Sir David Weatherall, was also elected to Foreign Membership of the National Academy of Sciences, USA.
When the Institute opened in the 1980’s, the notion of molecular medicine was a novel and innovative concept in clinical research, and Sir David Weatherall is widely regarded as a pioneer in this field. To this day, the Institute continues to be a world leader in the field of translational medical research, providing both scientists and clinicians with the equipment and expertise to drive forward our understanding of some of the most challenging medical problems in the world.