Campus History

Campus History

The Wellcome Trust bought the Campus site in 1992 as a home for the new Sanger Centre. Since then the site has developed to become a world leading hub for genomics and biodata.

It would have been hard for the first researchers to imagine how the Campus would develop over the years. First came a painstaking restoration of the Grade II listed 17th century Hinxton Hall and excavation of its grounds. The excavation drew evidence that Neolithic ancestors had walked the very same site. Those first researchers on the site whose science looked with such anticipation into the future, were afforded an unprecedented glimpse of the past.

Archaeology of the site

Ancient feet had indeed, once trod upon Hinxton's soil. Archaeologists working on the site during the early years of Wellcome Trust ownership excavated a number of pits, including a deep chalk shaft, which indicated that our ancestors from the Neolithic period (4400-2000 BC) had once worked in the area. The function of the pit is unknown, although early Bronze-age residents later adopted it as a ritual site and filled it with bits of finely decorated beakers.

The prehistoric visitors might have worked in the area, as traces of flint were retrieved from a number of natural ponds; however there is no indication that they lived on the site.

Click here to read more about the history and archaeology of the site.

The Hinxton Estate

The Hinxton estate, with its Hall and parkland lies on the banks of the River Cam, which also flows through the old university city of Cambridge, nine miles to the north. The link is fitting, as the first recorded owner of the estate in 1506, was the College of Michaelhouse in Cambridge.

A family home was first built on the site by John Bromwell Jones in 1748, and the central three-storey block of the existing Hall is from this period. At this time, Hinxton Hall was an integral part of the village, lying at the southernmost end of its high street - the road that ran from Cambridge to Saffron Walden in the south. Opposite the house were some fine stables, a well-tended kitchen-garden and an orchard, all of which survive today, albeit in altered form.

By 1860, the Hinxton estate incorporated around 13 acres of parkland and the Hall was a country home that its residents, the Green family, could be proud of. However by the turn of the last century the Greens had vacated the estate and in 1920 it passed into the hands of the Robinson family. It was under the Robinson family tenure that the Hall was used for billeting American soldiers, stationed at the local Duxford airbase during the Second World War. The airbase is now part of the Imperial War Museum.

Finally in 1953, the Hall and grounds were sold to Tube Investments plc, which erected research laboratories in the grounds and converted the Hall into office space. In the late 1980s, the company closed its laboratories and the site was purchased by Capital and Counties plc who had ambitious plans for a business park - a venture that never got off the ground.

At this time, John Sulston (Founding Director of the Sanger Centre) and Wellcome Trust staff were looking for temporary accommodation for the new sequencing centre. Hinxton was an ideal choice, and so late in 1992 the Wellcome Trust became the new 'landlord' of Hinxton. Since then the Trust has been fortunate enough to purchase some 1400 acres surrounding the Hall from the Robinson family, thus increasing the Trust's investment in the area.

Click here to read more about the history of the Hinxton Hall Estate

History of the Sanger Institute

The origins of the Wellcome Sanger Institute are intertwined with those of the Human Genome Project. In the 1980s Jim Watson, co-discoverer of the double helical structure of DNA, and others, proposed that sequencing all three billion letters of the human genetic code might be possible. It was argued that the sequence would be an invaluable tool for biomedical research.

Although small genomes had been sequenced, the human genome was on a completely different scale. Mapping and sequencing continued on other smaller organisms including the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans and central to this work was John Sulston, then at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. He and other members of the 'worm community' had pioneered an open, collaborative approach to genome research.

While the MRC had invested heavily in the sequencing of the worm genome, work on the human genome would have been a very major undertaking. The Wellcome Trust saw that a human genome sequence would be a force for accelerating biomedical research, one of the main aims of the Trust, and seized the opportunity to support the global Human Genome Project. The Wellcome Trust stepped in, and jointly with the MRC established a centre dedicated to genome sequencing. The Hinxton Hall estate to the south of Cambridge became available and existing laboratories there were quickly converted.

By April 1993, 15 researchers were at work and construction began on modernising the existing Tube Investments plc research building. The Sanger Centre as it was then known was formally opened in October 1993 by Fred Sanger, the double Nobel Laureate who devised the method for DNA sequencing used in the Human Genome Project, and after whom the Centre was named.

In 1996, both the Sanger Centre and the neighbouring EMBL-EBI began to migrate into purpose built new buildings. These would be home to some of the most important genetic discoveries of the 20th and 21st Centuries. A second building development to extend Campus facilities was opened in 2005, creating a state-of-the-art new home for staff amenities and a data centre to house the growing data storage needs of the Sanger Institute and EMBL-EBI.