Image of Lynda taken after she completed her interview with a cytogeneticist in Perugia, Italy, September 2019. Photograph: Dr Cristina Meccuci

Tracing the Evolution of Cancer Cytogenetics: An Interview with PhD candidate Lynda Campbell

After retiring from a distinguished scientific career, Lynda Campbell developed an interest in the history of her field. In 2018 Lynda began her PhD ‘Playing with Paper Dolls: A History of Cancer Cytogenetics’ in the History & Philosophy of Science Program at SHAPS.  In this interview with Samara Greenwood, Lynda describes her path from industry to scholarship.

I understand you worked in cancer cytogenetics for many years before beginning your PhD. Could you tell us a little about this work?

Cancer cytogenetics is the study of chromosome abnormalities in cancer cells, especially blood cancers. I worked at the Victorian Cancer Cytogenetics Service at St Vincent’s Hospital for 27 years, 23 as director of the laboratory.

We examined patient chromosomes under the microscope, capturing images using a computer program and analysing them to identify abnormalities; for example, extra copies of specific chromosomes, loss of chromosomes and structural rearrangements. Many abnormalities are only found in certain types of cancer, so their presence helps diagnosis and predicting if the cancer is going to respond to treatment.

Every sample was a puzzle to be solved and, in solving that puzzle, I was helping each patient find the best treatment.

A full set of human chromosomes. Photograph: John Campbell via Flickr


What motivated you to undertake a PhD?

When I retired, I had no thought of doing a PhD. I left for London a week after my last day at work. When I heard about a Diploma course in the History of Medicine at the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, it seemed like a perfect way to justify my year in London. I found the course fascinating – it covered everything from Hippocrates [an ancient Greek physician] to Vesalius [the Renaissance physician who founded modern anatomy] to Nazi medicine in World War Two.

Part of the assessment was a piece of original research. I found this daunting but one of our lecturers, an eminent social historian, talked about oral history. I decided to interview cytogenetics colleagues in the UK. I only interviewed seven individuals, but each had such fascinating stories to tell that the seeds of my present project were sown.

Could you give us a brief overview of your research project?

I’m exploring the evolution of cancer cytogenetics, which only emerged as a field after World War Two. I want to identify the key individuals responsible for its development and how the area evolved from a research interest into a clinical laboratory specialty. I’m also interested in why cancer cytogenetics has attracted so many women and how that impacted its development.

I’ve been astonished by the number of people I interviewed who told stories about workplace difficulties as female PhDs in laboratories run by male MDs. As someone with a medical degree, I had been oblivious to this during my working life and had not previously considered it part of the story. Clearly, I was mistaken.

Janet Rowley (1925–2013) was a pioneer of cancer cytogenetics, she linked chromosomal changes to certain types of leukaemia, 1980s. Photograph: US Department of Energy

What else have your interviews revealed so far?

I’ve now undertaken about 50 interviews in the UK, Europe, the USA and Australia. To date, my oldest subject was in her 90s and the youngest in their 50s. I was delighted at the response I received from friend and stranger alike. Many of those whom I’d never met have been extremely enthusiastic about the project and determined this history should be documented.

I’ve heard many amazing stories. One woman, Mary, fresh out of Oxford with a Zoology degree, went to work with Jérôme Lejeune [the French geneticist who identified the link between chromosomes and Down syndrome] in Paris in 1961. This was two years after Lejeune published on the extra chromosome in individuals with Down syndrome. Mary described how a cockerel was kept in the garden of the hospital and one of the technicians would take its blood to add to the cell cultures – apparently it improved the chromosome preparations.

Another woman, who had not obtained a position because she had three children and wanted to work part-time, approached her old supervisor, the principal of Somerville college in Oxford, who managed to drum up a job for her in another London laboratory – the old girls’ network?

With regard to issues faced by women, one woman described how she leapt out of a window in the middle of an experiment to avoid having to drive the head of the lab to collect his dry cleaning. There are many more stories, but I’m still transcribing my interviews. Give me another six to twelve months!

Has your industry experience helped your research?

I think it would have been very difficult to undertake this project without the specialist knowledge I gained throughout my previous career. I have published extensively in the field and have served on many national and international committees over the last few decades, so my name was known to most of the people I interviewed, even if we had not met before. My insider status was definitely a bonus.

Two types of chromosome abnormalities cancer cytogeneticists look for; duplication and deletion. Image: Genome Research Ltd. via Flickr

How have you found the PhD experience so far? Would you recommend it to others?

I’m enjoying the PhD experience enormously. It’s exciting and stimulating to be engaged in a new field of endeavour and I’m surrounded by young people who have been extremely welcoming to a grey-haired old lady in their midst.

My major challenge has been the coursework. The seminars have, for the most part, been fascinating but, having not written an essay for more than 40 years, I found the assessments to be a challenge. I was helped by fellow students and old friends who agreed to read my essay drafts and gave me helpful and tactful advice.

I would recommend this journey to anyone who has a project they are fascinated by. Once I managed to navigate the university application process (not straightforward!), I found the whole experience to be an extremely positive one.

Once you have finished your PhD, what do you hope to do next?

The plan is to write a book – a history of cancer cytogenetics. Just about everyone I have interviewed has said they look forward to reading it, so there is some pressure. I have told them not to hold their breath but in truth I am eager to attempt this. It is not only their history but my own as well.

If you would like to hear more about Lynda Campbell’s research, or have a connection to this history and would be interested in being interviewed for the project, Lynda can be contacted via email.

Feature image: Image of Lynda taken after she completed her interview with a cytogeneticist in Perugia, Italy, September 2019. Photograph: Dr Cristina Meccuci