Monday, 3 November 2014

People from the past 10: Valerie Dwerryhouse (1933-2010)

Valerie Dwerryhouse: admired by colleagues for her work behind the scenes at Fairlynch Museum 

Over the years Fairlynch has been fortunate in finding many volunteers with a professional background in research, enabling the Museum to maintain high standards normally found in much bigger institutions. The good scientist’s ability to think critically is of special value and Dr Valerie Dwerryhouse, a highly respected immunologist and Fairlynch volunteer for many years, was certainly distinguished in that respect.

She was born Valerie Stacey on 17 September 1933. Brought up in the village of Holsworthy, in north-west Devon, she studied Microbiology at Imperial College after graduating in Household and Social Science at London University’s Queen Elizabeth College. Some of the inspiration and motivation for her studies came from the family doctor in Holsworthy, Stuart Craddock, who had been a research assistant to Sir Alexander Fleming at the time of the discovery of penicillin. It was Dr Craddock who through his contacts assisted her in securing her first job as a bacteriologist at the Burroughs Wellcome research centre in Beckenham, Kent.

This was followed by posts at the Low Temperature Research Station in Cambridge and at Bayer Pharmaceuticals in Newmarket. She then spent three years from 1959 as a Research Assistant in Immunology in King’s College Hospital Medical School before submitting her doctoral thesis entitled ‘The immunological response to exogenous insulin.’  A further two years were spent as a Research Fellow of Harvard University, working at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston USA. 

Returning to the UK she worked from 1965 to 1971 for the Medical Research Council at the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill, London, going on to the MRC’s Clinical Research Centre at Northwick Park, Harrow; here she worked with the Nobel Prize winner Sir Peter Medawar, who had discovered the immunological basis of the rejection of skin and organ transplants.

A gravid adult female Nippostrongylus brasiliensis worm, collected from the small intestine of an infected laboratory-bred mouse and photographed with a Nikon light microscope and mounted digital camera. The picture shows a hooked anterior end containing eggs. 
Image credit: J. Claire Hoving

The results of her research appeared under her married name of Valerie Jones in numerous studies published over the years in various scientific journals. From 1967 she collaborated with the Australian-born scientist Bridget Ogilvie on a series of academic papers, mostly based on study of the parasitic worm  Nippostrongylus brasiliensis found in the gut of rats and mice. The two women had first met as postgraduate students at the Veterinary Science School in Cambridge. Their joint research led to important conclusions about the role of such parasites in stimulating immune response, including a greater understanding of human allergies. 

Dame Bridget Ogilvie FRS as she is known today would go on to become internationally renowned as a scientist, involved in projects such as sequencing the human genome as well as the research into veterinary and medical parasitology on which she collaborated with Valerie. For her, as she would later recall, Valerie was a skilful and careful bench worker as well as excellent company and a cherished friend.

Dame Bridget amusingly wrote of how she and Valerie worked at the National Institute for Medical Research under Dr Frank Hawking, head of their Department and father of the famous Cambridge physicist Professor Stephen Hawking.

“Dr Hawking Senior was a rather eccentric and awkward man and very old fashioned,” she recalled. “He called all the men by their surnames without using their titles. In the case of the women graduates he would call the medics Dr, but the others were addressed as Miss or Mrs and he never called them Dr, even if they had a PhD. Valerie confused him in this desire, as he knew she had been divorced and did not know whether the surname Jones, that she used at that time, was her married or maiden name. She didn’t enlighten him so he finally gave it and much to our amusement, called her Valerie. This helped the atmosphere in the whole department.”

Valerie’s long friendship with Dame Bridget was recognised when she was invited to participate at the celebrations marking the latter’s 1999 Festschrift at the Wellcome Building in London. By then, she had been living in Devon for more than 20 years, having moved to Fountain Hill in Budleigh Salterton.  Her return to the West Country had came in 1976 when she took up the post of Research Fellow at the Postgraduate Medical School, Exeter University. Initially she worked with Dr Harry Hall, who had introduced renal dialysis at Exeter in 1967 and been one of the founding consultants of the Exeter Kidney Unit set up at Dean Clarke House in Southernhay.  While developing the renal service, he pursued his interest in diabetic care and rheumatology, supervising the introduction of corticosteroids for rheumatoid arthritis.

It was in the latter area that Valerie specialised at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, running a small but happy team of workers with the aim of investigating the genetic and immunological basis of rheumatoid arthritis, having obtained research grants from the Arthritis and Rheumatism Council to study some aspects of the immune system in rheumatoid arthritis. In particular she and her fellow-researchers looked at a virus which has been shown to produce inflammatory arthritis and studied some of the genetic factors that predispose people to develop arthritis. 

Thirty years on, noted one of her colleagues from those early days at the RD&E, we can see how the work undertaken by her and her team has contributed to our understanding of rheumatoid arthritis, which afflicts 2% of the population. Many of the small pieces of the jigsaw have been assembled to give a greater understanding of the disease. Valerie’s contribution to that jigsaw was recognised when she was awarded a prestigious Doctorate of Science from London University. This is only awarded to scientists on a portfolio of outstanding work. 

Two years before her arrival In Budleigh she had remarried, following her divorce. With her second husband, Michael Dwerryhouse, she had 35 years of happy married life. Both shared a love of music and theatre and regularly attended Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra concerts in Exeter. 

Scientific colleagues like Dame Bridget Ogilvie remembered Valerie for her charm as well as for her intelligence, and this quality made her much loved by her family.  “I was aware early on that Valerie wasn’t like other grannies. She certainly didn’t fit the grey hair stereotypes. Valerie was young and stylish and fun,” recalled one of her step-grandchildren.

Following her retirement from scientific research she took up various part-time voluntary posts. She worked for a number of years as an adviser at the Citizens Advice Bureau in Exeter, and was also involved in the work of the Exeter Housing Society, a housing association of which she subsequently became chairman. 

Fairlynch co-founder Priscilla Hull remembered admiringly the work that Valerie did in the early 2000s behind the scenes at the Museum. By this stage she had moved from Fountain Hill to Marine Court, conveniently placed for her visits to Fairlynch. For six years, right up until her final illness, she helped to catalogue the collections, transferring information to the computer; her colleagues on the Museum’s documentation team found her always good-humoured and meticulous in her approach to work.
Valerie Dwerryhouse died on 11 January 2010, aged 76. Her husband Michael died six months later.   

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