The History of the MBU

The origin of the MBU

Although the Unit was only founded in its present form in 2009, under its previous Director, Sir John Walker FRS, the Unit's antecedents go back more than a century.

Until 2009, the Unit carried the name of Sir William Dunn, a Scot who made his fortune in South Africa before then returned to this country where he became Liberal MP for Paisley. On his death in 1912 he left £1 million to charity: to advance the cause of Christianity, to benefit children and young people, to support hospitals, to encourage education and to promote emigration. The trustees of Sir William's bequest were persuaded by the Secretary of the Royal Society, Sir William Hardy, and the Secretary of the MRC, Sir Walter Fletcher, to support the new discipline of biochemistry, and particularly the leading figure in this country, Sir Frederick Gowland-Hopkins, Professor of Biochemistry in Cambridge. The result was the construction of the Biochemistry Department in Tennis Court Road and the endowment of the Professorship and Readership in Biochemistry in Cambridge University. Gifts were also made to various other institutions, particularly the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology in Oxford, and the final residue of £6,000 was used to build the Dunn Nutritional Laboratory in Cambridge, which opened in 1927, with its research supported by the MRC.

The Dunn's scientific contributions

Over nearly 80 years of activity, the Unit's scientists made many contributions to nutrition research.

In brief, in the early years important work was carried out on vitamin research, particularly on vitamins A, D, E and C and later on their mode of action, particularly that of vitamin D. In 1966, on the retirement of Professor McCance as Professor of Experimental Medicine, the Unit was joined by Dr Elsie Widdowson FRS to head the Division of Infant Nutrition Research. In addition to research in this area, she and colleagues collected material for the fourth edition of The Composition of Foods, published in 1978.

From 1973, under Dr Whitehead's leadership, the Unit moved into new areas of research in applied nutritional studies, making many important contributions in relation to malnutrition in the third world, lactation, bone health and energy requirements. In 1998, Professor Sir John Walker FRS, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, was appointed Director of the Dunn. The following year, the Unit moved to laboratories in the newly constructed Wellcome Trust/MRC Building, which we share with the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research.

In 2009, recognising the Unit's advances in the study of mitochondria, the Unit was renamed the MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit. In 2013, Sir John stepped down as Director, and was succeeded by Professor Massimo Zeviani, the Unit's present Director.