THERE IS a giant drawing of a hunched, naked woman in the foyer of Amersham's corporate headquarters in Little Chalfont, north-west of London. Intermittently, a light is shone through from behind, illuminating the woman's internal organs, like some sort of colourful, all-body x-ray.
Designed by Amersham's in-house artist, Ivan Riches, Sir William Castell, the chief executive, likes the piece so much that it has been turned into a 3D computer image, put on CD-Rom and is being sent to schools around the UK. He is so pleased because it is one of the best answers yet to the question still often asked of his FTSE 100 health science company: What exactly does Amersham do?
Sir William said: "This is the quirky chief executive, trying to find ways to communicate what we do. What Ivan did, because I find it difficult to explain the company to people, is put it into art for me."
Amersham - Margaret Thatcher's first privatisation, 20 years ago - has had some pretty good attempts at summing itself up in a soundbite. It is about "visualising life"; it "brings vision to medical discovery"; its annual report this year is to be called Answering Life's Questions.
The group manufactures radioactive dyestuffs and other chemicals put into the body to enhance the images from x-rays and other scanners and help doctors pick out medical problems. And it makes the sort of gene sequencing machines that mapped the human genome.
In recent weeks, Sir William has also been saying Amersham is about "personalised medicine". This is the holiest of the current grails sought by the pharmaceutical industry. Because even the best drugs are not effective in everybody, scientists believe that looking at a person's genetic make-up will reveal which drugs will work most efficiently. Sir William believes Amersham can be a powerful player in both aspects of personalised medicine, the first diagnosis of a condition and then the genetic testing to determine treatment.
Combining these two aspects of its business was the aim of its $1bn (pounds 700m) purchase, last week, of the remaining stake in the life sciences division held by its joint venture partner Pharmacia. Sir William says he can now assume full control of the business, which makes gene and protein research equipment, and break down the "Chinese walls" that had previously existed within Amersham.
"The great challenge for this company over the next 30 years is to make sure that it plays its part not only in giving the tools to understand biological science and inheritance, but to make that understanding into meaningful medicine."
His mission to explain, justify and promote Amersham - and its science - clearly cannot be achieved by sitting still behind a desk. He puts his thumb and forefinger together to mime the small radioactive pellets inserted into the prostate gland to treat cancer. His eyes dart around the office, looking for a framed picture of sequenced DNA to illustrate the achievements of Amersham's equipment. He leaps from his chair to find the 38-year- old Sainsbury report that first set out the principle that drug companies could recoup the costs of research spending in the cost of their drugs.
In fact, there is quite a lot of searching for the Sainsbury report, which, it turns out, has disappeared from his office. He worries that the principle of the report is in danger of disappearing, too. "That system was a vital and successful part of the growth of SmithKline, Beecham, Glaxo, Wellcome. We're losing that environment. Everything is about how we can contain the costs of healthcare, and there has not been the same environment asking how we can nurture the industry. …