25th Anniversary of the Wellcome Trust Building

Published on 1 May 2023

May 1, 2023 marks the 25th Anniversary of the official opening of the Wellcome Trust Building.

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Wellcome Trust Building (University of Dundee Archive Services)

May 1, 2023 marks the 25th Anniversary of the official opening of the Wellcome Trust Building, the conclusion of a three-day celebration that marked a new era in Life Sciences research in Dundee with the new building dubbed the University’s ‘sparkling citadel of science’ at the time by the then Principal Ian Graham-Bryce.

The building was built and equipped with donations totalling over £13.6 million, the first one coming from actor Sean Connery, who donated a quarter of the US$250,000 fee he received for his one-minute walk on part in the film “Robin Hood Prince of Thieves” (worth £37,000 at that time). Other major donations included £10 million from the Wellcome Trust (the largest single donation ever given to a Scottish institution at the time), Scottish Enterprise Tayside (£750,000), Tayside Regional Council (£500,000), The Gannochy Trust (£500,000), the philanthropists Ruth and Bruce Rapoport (£100,000) and The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council /University of Dundee (£1 million). Another notable donation was received from author Dame Catherine Cookson (£59,000), which was used to pay the stipends of two of the first PhD students to be recruited to the building.

At the time of the opening, the building comprised four research Divisions, termed Molecular Parasitology (MP), Gene Regulation and Expression (GRE), Immunology, and Cell and Developmental Biology (CDB). Alan Fairlamb was recruited from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to head up Molecular Parasitology and Angus Lamond from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Heidelberg to head up GRE. Birgitte Lane, who became Head of CDB, had been recruited a few years earlier from Imperial Cancer Research Fund, London. Others early recruits attracted to Dundee as Heads of research groups included Bill Hunter (MP), Tom Owen Hughes and Neil Perkins (GRE), Paul Crocker (Immunology), Cheryl Tickle and Kees Weijer (CBP). When it was eventually full, the building housed over 250 scientists and support staff and its twenty-two Principal Investigators had been awarded grants totalling over £23 million to fund their research over the next five years. The scientists carried out fundamental research aimed at eventually understanding the causes of many diseases including cancer, hereditary skin diseases, inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, sleeping sickness and other tropical parasitic diseases.

Inauguration of the Wellcome Trust Building

The three days of special events began with the Peter Garland Lecture that was delivered by Dr Bruce Stillman of New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory who talked about his research into ‘Cell cycle control of genome duplication in eukaryotic cells’ - a topic with implications for cancer.

The following day an all-day symposium was held. It was attended by several hundred scientists and showcased the latest research into the four major branches of life sciences to be investigated in the new building - cell and developmental biology, gene expression, molecular cell biology and molecular parasitology.

Bridget Ogilvie reflected in a plaque dedicated to her.

Bridget Ogilvie at the opening. (University of Dundee Archive Services)

The official opening ceremony was performed by Dame Bridget Ogilvie, Director of the Wellcome Trust, in the main atrium of the building. This was followed by a special honorary degree ceremony in the Bonar Hall for those scientists, philanthropists and academics who had made a significant contribution to the establishment of the building.

The degree of Doctor of Laws was conferred upon:

  • Professor Geoffrey Dutton FRSE - member of the Biochemical Laboratory of the Department of Physiology from 1955-1969 and then the Department of Biochemistry, University of Dundee 1970-1983 and head of the department from 1980-83.
  • Professor Adam Neville CBE FRSE - Principal University of Dundee 1978-87
  • Dame Bridget Ogilvie FRS – Director, The Wellcome Trust
  • Dr Max Perutz OM CH CBE FRS - 1962 Nobel Laureate for Chemistry (awarded in absentia through illness to his son Robin Perutz FRS who attended the event)
  • Dr George Poste FRS - Chief Scientific Officer SmithKline Beecham
  • Mrs Ruth Rappaport - President Intermaritime Foundation
  • Dr Bruce Rappaport - Chairman of the Board, Bank of New York, Intermaritime Bank, Geneva
A group of people receiving honorary degrees.

Honorary Degree Recipients (University of Dundee Archive Services)

Campaign for a building

The opening was the conclusion of an eight-year campaign led and driven by Professor Sir Philip Cohen.

From 1970-1997 the Biochemistry Department was based in the Medical Sciences Institute (MSI), which it shared with the Department of Anatomy. The Biochemistry Department had expanded enormously from 1987-1990 after Philip Cohen attracted Mike Ferguson, Steve Homans, Peter Downes, David Lane, Birgitte Lane and David Glover to Dundee, which meant that there was no further room for expansion.

Initial thoughts were to add an extra floor to the top of MSI with the initial fund-raising campaign for this purpose. This led to the donation from Sean Connery, and the original request to Dame Bridget Ogilvie (then the Head of Science Programmes at the Wellcome Trust). Discussions started in November 1991 when Dame Bridget was invited to give the keynote ‘Saturday Night’ lecture at the 1st Biochemistry Department Annual Symposium held at the Atholl Palace Hotel, Pitlochry. Soon after Bridget was promoted to become Director of the Wellcome Trust, and this led to a dialogue over the following 18 months. During this time, it turned out that it was impossible for technical reasons to add another floor to the MSI. We were then invited to submit a “modest’ proposal for £2-3 million for a small extension, which expanded to what became the Wellcome Trust Building project.

The Wellcome Trust agreed to consider the proposal if several outstanding scientists were identified to move their laboratories to Dundee and submit a five-year programme of research. Remarkably, five academics not yet in Dundee agreed to write these grants, three of whom are still in Dundee (Alan Fairlamb, Bill Hunter and Angus Lamond), and the Trust eventually agreed to contribute £10 million to the project in December 1994.

Dame Bridget Ogilvie said in 2016 about the funding, “We regarded a building as just a major piece of equipment and we would never have given a building and then ask what people were going to be put in it. People had to earn it. Unless you have excellent people to fill it, you are not going to be very successful.”

Between 1995 and 1996, over 300 people applied for Principal Investigator positions with 22 people appointed.

The design and build

In January 1995, a plan for the Wellcome Trust Building was unveiled to press and public. It was designed by Malcolm McLean and his colleagues at the Glasgow-based firm of Boswell, Mitchell and Johnson. Exemption from VAT allowed an extra floor to be added resulting in seven storeys including one service floor accommodating the heating, ventilation, power and other services and a top floor restaurant.

A man operating a digger, while more men stand on the dirt ground beside it.

Breaking ground ceremony, 1 March 1996 (University of Dundee Archive Services)

It took nineteen months to build from start to finish and was completed on time and on budget. On 1 March 1996, a groundbreaking ceremony was performed by Dundee alumnus MP George Robertson (then Shadow Scottish Secretary and later Secretary for Defense and then Secretary General of NATO), followed by a topping out ceremony performed by MP Tam Dalyell on 5 August 1996. The handover ceremony took place on 14 October 1997 with the Principal of the University at the time, Dr Ian Graham-Bryce saying, “As our flagship institute 'crews up' and 'powers up' - taking on board 250 scientists from all parts of the globe - the impact on the local economy will continue. That the 'ship' had been built at all in Dundee was largely due to the vision, campaigning, determination, and scientific brilliance of the institute's director Professor Philip Cohen.”

People can be seen through the windows of the Wellcome building.

Uses of Disorder in Wellcome Trust Building Atrium.

Artist Julian Stocks designed and created two stained glass windows that were originally located above the entrance to the building. The work is called ‘Uses of Disorder’ and are the height of five storeys of the building. The work is interspersed with images relating to the specialism on each floor selected through a workshop program with the scientists at the university. Each of these images is distorted anamorphically so as to be 'legible' from one point of view alone. This is meant to represent the competing and often conflicting points of view that lie at the heart of the scientific debate.

In 1998, the Dundee Institute of Architects Design awarded the atrium a commendation.

Looking forward

To mark the building handover in October 1997, Philip Cohen said to the Evening Telegraph at the time, “The biggest challenge for the future is to know how to continue from here. Maybe the answer is start fundraising for another building.”

That happened, but that is another story...

Story category Research