Image credit: Dan Ross / Wellcome Sanger Institute
An online exhibit and a series of virtual talks explores the history of the Hinxton estate - from the first documented entry of a settlement at Hinxton in the Domesday Book, to the role of the estate in the Second World War, the Human Genome Project, and the genomic surveillance of COVID-19.
Hinxton Hall and its estate is today home to world-leading research institutes and organisations – including the Wellcome Sanger Institute and EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI). Over the last 18 months, the site’s history has been gathered and documented by a team from Wellcome Connecting Science. A new exhibition on the Genome Gallery website allows people to explore the site and the stories of people who’ve lived and worked here over the last few centuries.
In the final online talk of the series, which accompanies the exhibit, writer and journalist Anjana Ahuja will be in conversation with Sir Jeremy Farrar, Director of Wellcome; Siggi Nepp, Abell Nepp Architects; and from the Sanger Institute: Professor Sir Mike Stratton, Director; Dr Cordelia Langford, Director of Scientific Operations; and Dr Jeffrey Barrett, Director of the COVID-19 Genomics Initiative.
They will delve into the most recent chapter of the site’s story, beginning with the landmark mapping of the human genome, 30 years ago. They will explore how DNA sequencing plays a vital role in understanding health and disease, and celebrate what can be achieved when we make space for science.
From a home, to a home for science
From the 1700s to the 1950s the Hinxton estate was owned and sold between wealthy families. The first building documented on site was a fishing retreat, before it became a home in the 1700s, changing hands several times over the years. In 1953, the site was sold to Tube Investments Research Laboratories (TIRL), marking the start of its role in the world of discovery.
Electron microscopy and materials science research were conducted in former maids’ bedrooms and butlers’ pantries. Experiments on metals under high pressure took place in the bunker that was built during the Second World War. A country estate with a new function wasn’t unique – others in the area were sold and repurposed in the post-war period as society was changing. But for many, especially those that worked here, the site was exceptional.
Beth Elliott is a Digital Programme Curator at Wellcome Connecting Science, who brought the online exhibit and talks programme together. She reflected on the early days of science in Hinxton.
“It’s been such an honour to meet some of the pioneering scientists who worked at Tube Investments Research Laboratories and speak to them about their memories of the site and the palpable moments of discovery in their careers. Researchers saw metals at a scale never seen before. They were doing things for the first time. In the early days they were regularly allowed the creative freedom to work on whatever they wanted – to take risks, and to try things that may succeed or may fail – something that is incredibly important in science.”
Both when the buildings were home to TIRL, and in the early days of the Sanger Institute on the site, many staff reflect on the communal feeling of the place. There were shared spaces, break times were taken together, and there was croquet on the hall lawn at lunchtime. Once the number of people on site grew, these things faded – you can’t know everybody in an organisation that employs over 1,000 people – but they don’t become less important.
“How do you capture the feeling of knowing each other and cross fertilising ideas, when you work in a large organisation? I think both the space you are in, and the environment people create can play a vital role in that. This project has highlighted so many parallels drawn from the lessons of the past that are relevant today. I feel we have a lot to learn from our history that we can take forward into our future,” says Beth.
Wellome purchased the Hinxton estate in 1992 to establish a genome research centre, and the Sanger Centre (now the Wellcome Sanger Institute) was opened on the site in 1993. Initially housed in the former TIRL labs, the Institute was created to contribute to the Human Genome Project, and to ensure the data from the project were made public.
Cordelia Langford started at the Sanger Institute as a Research Assistant in 1994, as the Human Genome Project was getting underway. She is now Director of Scientific Operations, running one of the world’s largest genome sequencing facilities.
“Looking back at the Human Genome Project there was a feeling of excitement and discovery, but more importantly, a feeling of collaboration. There was a strong team spirit – almost a family feel. Everybody got involved to help each other – whatever their job was. If I needed help with something, I would just wander along the corridor until I bumped into someone and would ask them! Our founding director, John Sulston, in the early days was known to regularly help with the lab work one minute and then would be talking to the government the next.”
“The laboratories were set up in the former TIRL buildings, and perhaps it was some of the way things were set up in the space that allowed these things to happen. The main lab was nicknamed the ‘fish bowl’ because of the visibility of all the work going on in there. There was a mezzanine walkway above, with lots of visitors, and everyone could see and hear each other. Most of the building was arranged around a central square, all the labs felt interconnected and accessible. We were always passing each other in the corridors and different teams could get together to chat in the cafe.”
Mike Stratton, current director of the Sanger Institute says: “I feel the space here has been important for science. Not just the location - we are close to Cambridge University and have strong links to research in and around the city - but more importantly we have a physical and metaphorical space for people’s creativity to run free. We have space to think and beautiful surroundings in which to reflect. The most incredible things in research are the incidental findings, the serendipitous connections, moments when you are looking for one thing but you find another.”
The Human Genome Project was a huge, international collaboration. By the time of its completion, the Sanger Institute was the largest single contributor, and had unravelled one-third of the sequence of human DNA. The foundations of openness and collaboration that underpinned the landmark project remain today.
“The site and its architecture have a role to play in our openness. It is designed and built to foster collaborations – whether that’s bringing multidisciplinary teams together, or enabling global projects. So many important conversations happen in the queue for a coffee or passing your colleagues on the stairs. You are forced to bump into people. We have communal spaces, training & learning spaces, a conference centre, and in non-COVID times, we welcome many visitors to the site,” says Beth.
At the start of the pandemic, the Sanger Institute became part of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK), the national effort to genetically sequence and monitor the virus. Cordelia was instrumental in delivering what has become the world’s largest genomic surveillance system for SARS-CoV-2.
Spaces were rapidly reconfigured and staff volunteered to join newly-formed teams. New equipment was purchased and installed. There has been huge additional sequencing, data management and logistics capacity built over the last 18 months to support the national effort against the pandemic.
“The nature of our site and the way we do our science means we can be flexible. A lot of people have talked about pivoting, but that is exactly what we did – we re-prioritised our processes our people and our space – within two weeks of the first cases of COVID-19 in the UK, we began work on sequencing the virus,” says Cordelia.
“And of course, you need partnerships with other organisations, both academic and commercial. This work isn’t something one institute or one country can tackle alone. We are part of an empowering global community of researchers and suppliers.”
“Space for science is invaluable. This has been made especially clear throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Advancing research and improving health outcomes for people globally relies on scientists having the freedom and resources to explore bold new ideas, openly share their findings and collaborate across the world.”
Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of Wellcome