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NTU Sustainability in Enterprise

A History of Science in Nottingham

11 December 18 words: Harry McCormick
illustrations: Natalie Owen

This humble little city we all know and love is steeped in history. No matter where you are in the world, the utterance of the word “Nottingham” will instantly draw replies of “Ah, Robin Hood?!” And while everyone is familiar with our bow-wielding outlaw, Nottingham has been party to many heroes throughout the ages, some of which were clad in lab coats, not tights...

Arguably the greatest contribution to medicine to come from Nottingham was the development, and subsequent improvement, of the Magnetic Resonance Imaging technology or MRI. At the time of its discovery, the only choices for looking inside people were the X-ray – which failed to detail all the squishy bits – or the CT scan, which comes with all the associated risks of having several X-rays at once. Not ideal.

The MRI revolutionised medical imaging and consequently the whole field of diagnostics, and it came out of our very own Nottingham University thanks to Sir Peter Mansfield of London and Paul Lauterbur of Ohio. The duo were awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work. The University of Nottingham continues to carry out world-leading research into medical imaging technology to this day, and is on the forefront of the field.

In fact, our universities are at the top of the research game across the board. Over 80% of the research carried out by the University of Nottingham was deemed to be “world leading” or “internationally excellent” by the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014. Nottingham Trent University, named the 2017 UK University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards, has been awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education to recognise its world-class research.

Both universities have several dedicated medical research facilities that are leaders in their field, with the University of Nottingham having the Nottingham Breast Cancer Research Centre in the Queen's Medical Centre, and Nottingham Trent being home to the Anthony Nolan Trust Research Centre, which carries out world-leading research into blood cancers. It’s no wonder Nottingham is teeming with students.

Hanging around in the medical field, I’d be remiss to not mention Ibuprofen, which was developed by a team lead by Dr Stewart Adams. Dr Adams even went as far as playing guinea pig to his new invention by being the first to road test the drug, to nurse a particularly banging hangover, no less.

It was an ex Nottingham High School pupil, John Peake Knight, who invented the traffic light in 1868

Ibuprofen was developed in the sixties as a safer replacement for aspirin, and was the first non-steroidal anti-inflammatory to be available over the counter. It earned Dr Adams an OBE in 1987. Adams and his team were research and development staff at Boots; established in 1849 by John Boot, the company now has stores even as far away as Thailand. No longer in British hands, Boots was bought out by those pesky yanks, but its Nottingham legacy lives on to this day.

From people to plants, Professor Don Grierson is a British geneticist and Emeritus Professor at the University of Nottingham who identified several plant genes responsible for the ripening of tomatoes. His work lead him to develop the first genetically modified tomato approved for sale in the UK and America, which ripened more slowly, extending shelf life and diminishing food wastage. The tomato was used to make a puree that sold over 1.8 million units to the UK market alone.

It’s not just medical and botanical advancements to come from Nottingham, however. We’ve had some pretty big engineering breakthroughs too. It was an ex Nottingham High School pupil, John Peake Knight, who invented the traffic light in 1868. At that time, it was a revolving gas lantern that alternated from red to green, and was installed at a crossing near the House of Commons in London.

In keeping with Nottingham's road-safety legacies, the first road to be tarmacked was in West Bridgford. A lightbulb moment came to a Mr Edgar Purnell Hooley, a former County Surveyor at the owd County Council who was inspired by a spilled barrel of tar someone had attempted to clean up with gravel. He went on to patent the process in 1902.

Infrastructure seems to be a particular strong point of our Nottingham genii. A certain Thomas Hawksley of the Trent Waterworks Company, often described as the greatest water engineer of the nineteenth century, developed the first high-pressure “constant supply” water system. This was the first of its kind, able to bring fresh water to people’s homes on demand. It filtered and pumped water directly from Trent Bridge across Nottingham, resolving long-term complications with contamination and difficulty supplying the higher altitude areas of Nottingham.

This is all just the tip of the iceberg. Nottingham also lays claim to the development of the flying bedstead (the progenitor to the Harrier Jump Jet), the discovery of silicone polymers, the first police forensic laboratory, and the first radio message sent by police car. There’s a whole host of other miraculous inventions to come from our old city, proving that not only are we at the centre of this fine country, but we’ve done a great job of shaping it too.

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