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What makes a healthcare scientist: Tim Wreghitt

Microbiologist Tim Wreghitt looks back on the drivers and achievements across his highly successful career in Healthcare Science.

Microbiologist Tim Wreghitt

I was born in 1947 – a twin.  My twin sister died aged 3 of measles, at the height of the epidemic in the UK – an event which has shaped my life and my career.  I was so distraught that I was sent to school in a different village at 3.5 yrs of age, taken in by an unqualified teacher’s assistant who could have been the role model for Joyce Grenfell.  She lavished so much care and loving attention on me and we stayed lifelong friends.  I did well at primary school but became an 11 Plus Failure!! (I passed the theory exam with merit but since there were no seats on the school bus to take me from the Lincolnshire coast to Louth Grammar School, they told me I had failed!)
I was sent to a Private Weekly Boarding School because the only alternative was a local sink Secondary Modern school.  I did well at school and it was a very good training in hard work and educational discipline.  However, when I was 15, I was told I had no aptitude for science! I was put into the arts stream (you couldn’t do both in those days!). Since I very much wanted to become a scientist, I left to go to Grimsby College of Technology and gained 9 “O” levels and 2 “A” levels in four years.  Moral of the tale – work hard and follow your instincts!

In 1967 I was accepted at Chelsea College, University of London to do an Applied Biology BSc degree (interestingly, they asked me at the interview how good I was at Physics and I said I struggled with it because I hated it!  They said “well we won’t ask you for it then!”  They did as they said, so I dropped it to concentrate on my other two subjects (which reinforced my belief in honesty). In the second year I started to study Virology.  I absolutely loved it and I can take you to the exact seat in Manresa Road Chelsea lecture theatre where I had a Damascene conversion. I was so inspired by the virology lecturer discussing paramyxoviruses and reflecting about the loss of my sister that I decided I would be a virologist – and I have!  

In 1970 I was awarded an Upper 2nd BSc degree and went on to become one of the first Wellcome PhD Fellows at the Wellcome Research Laboratories in Beckenham and Surrey University studying mycoplasmas (OK I swerved a bit in my path but it all came good in the end!).  In 1975 I became a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Wellcome Research Laboratories and started work on hepatitis diagnostics (back on career track!). This was a very exciting time.  I worked in close collaboration with Dr David Dane (of the Dane Particle) at The Middlesex Hospital. We developed the first sensitive and rapid haemagglutination test for detecting hepatitis B surface antigen. It was my job to produce industrial amounts of purified hepatitis B surface antigen and antibody using sephadex colums six feet high. My technique must have been good because there was no hepatitis B vaccine to protect healthcare workers in those days. As the hepatitis virus development lead at Wellcome, I developed other hepatitis B marker tests.  However, at that time, in my opinion, there was a lack of commercial nous at Wellcome Diagnostics and the sales people were not interested in extending the range of hepatitis B tests.  So, I started to look around for other clinical research opportunities (working with David Dane had fired my enthusiasm to do more clinically-orientated research and development which would have a significant benefit to patients).

So, in 1977, I was appointed to a Senior Scientist post in virology at Cambridge Public Health Laboratory at Addenbrooke’s Hospital.  Initially I undertook clinical research and development.  After about a year, I was approached by Dr Rod Warren, who at that time was a medical Microbiology Senior Registrar.  He strongly encouraged me to study for MRCPath.  At that time (1978) only a few Scientists had successfully gained MRCPath. Some medical consultants were strongly supportive (including the Director of the Cambridge laboratory) but others were frankly not supportive.  I decided to study for MRCPath (the best decision I have ever made!) but I had to do it entirely in my own time.  Unlike my colleague medical virology trainee Senior Registrar (who had many weeks a year study leave, funded training courses and travel expenses) I was granted none of these. I was approached by the Director of the Public health Laboratory Service at a meeting who told me he did not approve of scientists doing MRCPath. To paraphrase, I told him that since I was doing it entirely in my own time and entirely at my own expense, I would definitely continue to study for MRCPath.  This served to strengthen my resolve. At that time, there was a 16 week Postgraduate Medical Federation course to prepare for MRCPath.  I applied to the virology professor running the course, telling him of my situation, He was outraged that I was not receiving support from the PHLS.   He immediately enrolled me on the course and asked me to send him a cheque for £350 which he said he would tear up! I passed the MRCPath Virology examination at the first attempt in 1983′ 

There were no clinical opportunities in Cambridge at the time, so I threw myself into ELISA research and development (later publishing a book: ELISA in the Clinical Microbiology Laboratory. Edited by TG. Wreghitt and P Morgan-Capner. Published by PHLS 1990.)  I also undertook a lot of clinical research in collaboration with the Cambridge kidney and liver transplant team and the Papworth Hospital heart transplant team.  My career total of publications and books amount to 160 plus peer-reviewed publications, 20 book chapters and 3 books.  The other two books were:

  • Toxoplasmosis:  A comprehensive clinical guide.  Edited by DHM Joynson and TG Wreghitt.  Published by Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Clinical and Diagnostic Virology.  Goura Kudesia and Tim Wreghitt.  Published by Cambridge University Press, 2008  

In 1985, with the surprise early retirement of the Consultant Virologist in Cambridge, I was appointed to the Honorary Consultant Virologist post. Initially I did this five days a week plus on-call.  From 2004 – 2011, I was also Regional Microbiologist for the Health Protection Agency in the East of England, performing my clinical role one day a week.  As Regional Microbiologist I was the Public Health Microbiology lead in the East of England.  As the only Regional Microbiologist who was a virologist, I also took national responsibility for the laboratory aspects of pandemic influenza planning, norovirus outbreaks and molecular diagnostics.

My career progression while in Cambridge was:

  • 1977 – 1984 –  Senior Scientist (largely MRCPath training and R&D)
  • 1984 – 1985 – Principal Scientist (Clinical and R&D)
  • 1985 – 1986 – Top Grade Scientist (Clinical and R&D)
  • 1986 – 2008 –  Top Grade with extra responsibility/Grade C (Clinical and R&D)
  • 2008 – 2011 –  Band 9 AfC  (Regional Microbiologist for HPA)

From 1985 – 2011 I was an Associate Lecturer at Cambridge University Pathology Department

My other career strand was in professional issues.  In 1990 – 1993, I was Chairman of The Association of Clinical Microbiologists.  In 2001 I gained the Open University Professional Certificate of Management, which was very useful in further building a career in management.

I also had significant input, on behalf of Clinical Scientists, at The Royal College of Pathologists:

  • 1995  – RCPath Clinical Virology Committee
  • 1996 – Member of RCPath Academic Activities committee
  • 1997 – Chairman of RCPath Academic Activities committee
  • 1999 – Elected member of RCPath Council
  • 2004 – 2008 RCPath Treasurer
  • 2008 – RCPath “College Medal & Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medal
  • 2008 – 2011 RCPath Vice President
  • 2012 MSC HSST Curriculum Lead for FRCPath Clinical Scientist trainees, overseeing the development of a suite of 11 FRCPath/HSST curricula

In 2011, I was appointed as the Midlands and East SHA Clinical Advisor in the Strategic Projects Team, dealing with Pathology Commissioning and service reconfiguration.

Qualifications, Medals and Decorations:

  • 1970:     BSc Applied Biology/Microbiology (Upper 2nd), University of London
  • 1975:     PhD, University of Surrey
  • 1983:     MRCPath (Virology) by examination.
  • 1988:     MA, University of Cambridge
  • 1994:     FRCPath
  • 2001:     Professional Certificate of Management, Open University
  • 2007:     Gold Medal, Chelsea Flower Show for Royal College of Pathologist Educational Exhibit
  • 2008:      College Medal awarded by The Royal College of Pathologists
  • 2008:      Gold Medal, Chelsea Flower Show for Royal College of Pathologists     Educational Exhibit
  • 2008:      OBE (for services to Clinical Science and Virology)
  • 2009:      Department of Health “Healthcare Scientist of the Year” award
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