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J R Soc Med. 2005 June; 98(6): 290–291.
PMCID: PMC1142243

Quartet of Unlikely Discoveries

Reviewed by R I S Bayliss

Sylvia Tait, James Tait
224 pp Price £7.99 ISBN 1-84401-343-X
London: Athena Press.

Sylvia and Jim Tait's Quartet is in part a scientific autobiography and in part a review of endocrine advances made during their working lives. It focuses on four research projects to which the two made important contributions before Sylvia Tait died in 2003.

The first topic is the structure of DNA. Here is given a detailed chronological account of the work of Rosalind Franklin, Wilkins, and Watson and others leading to the eventual elucidation of the structure of the molecule. Some of the early work on DNA had been done at Leeds University and here, using 'dilapidated apparatus', James Tait did his PhD research project. We are not told exactly what this was although he describes it as being 'mostly very tedious and boring'. The Taits moved to the Middlesex Hospital Medical School in London. Presumably this wise choice was made because the dean was Sir Charles Dodds, an accomplished steroid chemist who had synthesized the first commercially available oestrogen, namely stilboestrol. Here Jim and Sylvia Tait isolated and characterized the hormone electrocortin, so-called because of its effect on electrolytes. The name of this salt-retaining corticosteroid was later changed to aldosterone because this gave a better indication of its chemical structure. This was a major breakthrough in steroid chemistry, but further study and understanding of aldosterone together with the development of drugs that impede its action have had less influence on the treatment of congestive cardiac failure than was at first thought probable.

In conjunction with Roger Ekins, the Taits developed immunoassay techniques for the measurement of thyroid hormones—a major contribution which laid the background for the modern treatment of thyroid diseases. Jim Tait, no doubt correctly but rather irritatingly, persists in calling this technique 'saturation analysis', although universally it is now known as an immunoassay after its perfection in the USA by Yalow and Berson.

In the late 1950s the Taits moved to the Worcester Foundation in America to work with Gregory Pincus who at that time was developing the contraceptive pill. However, the Taits continued to work mainly on the metabolism of aldosterone and on steroid dynamics. Later they returned to the Middlesex Hospital Medical School. There follows a rather lengthy and heated discussion of the awarding of Nobel prizes and whether this is always as fair as it should be. Similarly, election to the Royal Society is discussed and it is a relief when the Taits are made Fellows simultaneously.

This is an interesting book rather than an important one. Historians of endocrinology will wish to read it. Sadly one gets the impression that the Taits, despite being elected Fellows of the Royal Society, do not feel they were given the recognition or were dealt with as honourably as their work and contributions deserved. If only aldosterone had proved more significant in human physiology and had played a more important role in human ill-health, the authors might have better grounds to complain.

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press