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Dr Oliver Wrong: a salt and water physician

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By | From the Collections, In the Library

Dr Oliver Wrong, best known as an academic and clinical nephrologist, was a salt and water physician. Meaning that he was mostly interested in what simple substances (such as water, potassium, sodium, and magnesium) could reveal about life – which led him to a lifelong interest in the kidney and the gut.  Though Wrong is perhaps best known as one of the founders of Dent’s Disease, his recently catalogued personal papers testify to his fascination with the products of the digestive process.

N0020061 Anatomy of the gastro-intestinal tract Credit: Medical Art Service, I. Christensen. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Digestive system. Colour artwork. Anatomy of the gastro-intestinal tract. Artwork Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 4.0, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Anatomy of the gastro-intestinal tract. Colour artwork by I. Christensen, image credit: Medical Art Service. Wellcome Images reference: N0020061.

In 1991, Dr Oliver Wrong stood before a postgraduate audience at the University of Liverpool’s School of Medicine and announced:

“My main interest is the kidney, but when invited to lecture here I was told that this organ is not a main interest of the department, whereas the gut is. Consequently, I’ve chose to talk on faeces, my second love…”

Those who researched stool, at least during Wrong’s active years (1960s-1990s), were rewarded because almost nothing was known of the material and thus almost anything discovered was new. Some of Wrong’s fascinating facts about faeces included:

  • Faeces contain a greater density of bacteria than any other material in the world. In fact, one gram of faeces contains more bacteria than there are people on earth.
  • After being expelled from the anus, faecal bacteria are largely annihilated by environmental oxygen – making them particularly difficult subjects for study.
  • Despite their solid appearance, faeces are typically composed of between 70 – 80% water, and consist of a mix of bacteria, chemical components, indigestible food residues, products of the digestive tract itself, and some non-organic material.

By studying stool, one can investigate some of the effects of diet, drugs, and disease…and the best way to create and analyse stool samples? Well, to do it yourself of course!  That’s right, the bulk of Dr Wrong’s knowledge on faeces derived from self-experimentation. At a time when most of the scientific community pinched their noses at the idea of studying stool – Wrong embraced the notion that “If you don’t know anything about something, you won’t know whether it is important.”

Dr Oliver Wrong

Dr Oliver Wrong (1925-2012). Wellcome Library reference: PP/WRO/A.

This mentality, paired with Wrong’s scientific diligence and ingenuity, led to the invention of the ‘Wrong Bags’. The Wrong Bags are made of a semi-permeable membrane containing an inert oncotic agent, placed inside gelatine capsules. The capsule is swallowed by a test subject, excreted, collected, and analysed. The bags offered a simple method for obtaining extracellular fluid of stool. In fact, they rather resemble hallow sausage links and it’s easy to imagine how Wrong was able to manufacture, administer, collect, and analyse over 5,000 of them (Wellcome Library reference:PP/WRO/D/6/1).

The life of faecal bacteria is short, and one hopes happy – Dr Oliver Wrong, 1991

Today, it is believed that the bacteria hosted by humans “are as unique as our fingerprints” and play a vital role in our physical and psychological health. Fifty+ years ago, Wrong pre-empted this by observing that “In some respects the composition of faecal dialysate appeared to be a function of the individual” and that the particularity of faecal composition is a gateway for understanding human health (Wellcome Library reference: PP/WRO/D/14A).

B0004622 Intestinal bacteria Credit: University of Edinburgh. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Colour-enhanced image of intestinal bacteria. The horizontal field width of the sample is 4.8 micrometres. Transmission electron micrograph 1980 - 2000 Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 4.0, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Colour-enhanced image of intestinal bacteria. Transmission electron micrograph, 1980 – 2000. Image credit: University of Edinburgh.  Wellcome Images reference: B0004622.

Researchers can now explore this newly catalogued archive in the Library – they will be able not only to delight in Wrong’s faecal investigations but also in his other outstanding research regarding the kidney and gut.


Riley Linebaugh was project archivist for the Oliver Wrong papers.

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