History: Arthritis Research UK Epidemiology Unit

The Unit was established by Professor JH Kellgren in 1954, the then Professor of Rheumatology at Manchester University, the first in the United Kingdom. Its first title was the Mobile Field Survey Unit with its first Director being Dr JS Lawrence. The title of the Unit was subsequently changed to the Field Unit for Epidemiological Investigations and later to the title of Epidemiology Research Unit. With the change in name, but not initials, from the Arthritis & Rheumatism Council to Arthritis Research Campaign, the Unit formally became known as the arc Epidemiology Unit. In March 2010, following the change of name of the arc, we became the Arthritis Research UK Epidemiology Unit.

Initially its surveys concentrated on musculoskeletal complaints in coal-miners, but rapidly spread to population surveys of the rheumatic diseases. During its first 15 years of its existence, the Unit carried out a series of population surveys to establish the occurrence of the rheumatic diseases. These surveys conducted in Leigh, a small industrial town north of Manchester, Wensleydale, a rural area in the Yorkshire Dales and in the Rhonda Valley in South Wales, were unique in their time and formed the benchmark for subsequent epidemiological investigations in this area. This pioneering work concentrated on standardising disease definitions for survey purposes, undertaking detailed prevalence surveys and conducting genetic studies based on familial and twin aggregation. These studies are still regularly cited in current literature. The studies were also unique in that their methodology involved obtaining radiographs, at a number of joint sites, from a large population sample. These X-rays form a unique collection which are still used today, given current difficulties in being able to replicate such studies for ethical, financial and other reasons.

Professor Philip Wood
Professor John Lawrence

Professor Alan Silman

Image left to right: Professor Philip Wood, Dr John Lawrence and Professor Alan Silman

Directors of the Unit

In 1968, Professor Philip Wood succeeded Dr John Lawrence as the Director. Between 1968 and 1988, there was a clear move away from descriptive and analytical epidemiological studies towards a greater emphasis on the application of social sciences to the study of rheumatic diseases. Working alongside the newly developing academic discipline of community medicine, the Unit made a major contribution to the planning of health services for patients with rheumatic diseases. Considerable effort was expended on analysing available datasets to produce high-quality information to permit rationale planning for health services and government departments. In addition, great emphasis was laid on the importance of suitable methods of disease classification that could be used widely and the Unit achieved international renown for its work on the development of the WHO sponsored International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps. In the mid-1980s, the Unit was also commissioned by the Calderdale Health Authority to undertake a survey of the needs of the disabled within the Authority. Data from this survey were important in demonstrating the considerable levels of disability at a population level resulting from musculoskeletal diseases.

The third Director, Professor Alan Silman, took up the post in January 1989. Since that date, the work of the Unit has reverted to its roots in traditional population studies. However, the considerable advances in epidemiology, biostatistics and computing, genetics and molecular biology have had vast implications for the type of questions that can be answered using epidemiological methods. Alan left the Unit at the end of 2006 to become the Arthritis Research Campaign's first Medical Director.

In October 2009, after a very successful period of co-directorship of the Unit, Professor Deborah Symmons was appointed as the Medical Director and Head of the arc Epidemiology Unit and Professor Jane Worthington, the Unit's Scientific Director, was appointed the Head of the Epidemiology Research Group (now the Centre for Musculoskeletal Research).

EULAR Centre of Excellence

In 2011, the international reputation of the Arthritis Research UK Epidemiology Unit was again recognised with the successful review and renewal by the European League Against Rheumatism (EULAR) of the Unit's designation as a EULAR Centre of Excellence in Rheumatology. The designation was renewed under the Centre for Musculoskeletal Research in June 2016 until 2021.

Arthritis Research UK Centres of Excellence

In August 2013 we were awarded two centres of excellence by Arthritis Research UK: the Centre for Epidemiology and the Centre for Genetics and Genomics. These build upon the outstanding legacy of the Unit and provide infrastructure support to enable us to continue our world-class research. The two centres were awarded funding for a further five years commencing August 2018.

Golden Jubilee celebrations

During 2004-2005 the Unit celebrated its Golden Jubilee, marking the achievements of the Unit over the last 50 years.