Doctor Walter Plowright: Veterinary scientist whose vaccine has all but eradicated cattle plague

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Walter Plowright was a veterinary scientist who developed the means to rid the world of an animal disease that the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) described as important as smallpox. For centuries cattle plague, or murrain, properly known as rinderpest, was a scourge which had devastating effects on every society with a cattle-based economy. Eradicated from most western countries, it remained a serious problem internationally, particularly in Africa, until well into the 20th century. It was not until the 1960s that cheap and effective control of the disease became possible, and the man primarily responsible for the revolutionary vaccine that enabled this was Walter Plowright.

Plowright had first been attracted to a career working to combat animal diseases while working in the tropics as an army vet. In 1944, after qualifying as a veterinary surgeon at the Royal Veterinary College, London, he joined the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and was posted to Kenya. The four years he spent there gave him an insight to the diseases prevalent among the livestock so important to the ecosystem of the indigenous people, for whom he developed an enduring affection.

Plowright returned to the UK in 1948 to a lecturing post at the RoyalVeterinary College, but soon decided to join the Colonial Veterinary Service. That branch of the colonial administration attracted many bright young vets, combining as it did the opportunity for adventure with performing a valuable service to under-resourced areas where the health of livestock could make all the difference between prosperity and poverty. Plowright moved back to Kenya in 1950. He was based first at the Federal Research Laboratories at Kabete,followed by three years at the laboratory in Vom, Nigeria.

He was appointed head of the department of pathology, East African Research Laboratories, Muguga, back in Kenya, which became his base until 1971. In 1964 he switched employers to the Animal Virus Research Institute, Pirbright, but continued to work in Kenya on secondment.

Plowright soon realised that rinderpest in the local cattle was caused by a virus carried by wildebeest, which were unaffected by the disease. If the disease could be eradicated from wildebeest, the problem would be solved. He and his colleagues set out to develop a vaccine to immunise the wildebeest.

Viral vaccines were then in their infancy, viruses being difficult to grow in the laboratory. Plowright developed a technique that allowed the virus to grow in controlled conditions on a tissue culture and thus made possible the development of a vaccine.

But the road from making a laboratory culture to producing an effective vaccine economically was a long one. The product had first to be tested in the field on the animals themselves. And wildebeest are not the easiest of animals to handle: as one of Plowright's colleagues, Frank Dobson, said: "Surely, no one is going to go out there to wrestle with wild buffalo [wildebeest], and inoculate a quarter of a million of them – but Walter Plowright did!"

His work was widely recognised. In 1984 he was the first recipient of the King Baudouin International Development Prize. in 1999, on the recommendation of the FAO, he received the World Food Prize, an award worth $250,000.

Returning to the UK in 1971, Plowright resumed his academic career, taking the chair of microbiology and parasitology at the Royal Veterinary College. His final full-time post was as head of the department of microbiology, Institute for Research on Animal Diseases, Compton, from 1978 to 1981. In his retirement he was in demand as a consultant and as a visiting lecturer and professor.

Personally, Plowright was the most upright of men; he set himself high standards and was critical of those less rigorous. However, a seeming sternness of manner soon dissolved on acquaintance to reveal a personality that made him popular with students and colleagues. The FAO has set 2010 as its target for the total eradication of rinderpest. If this target is achieved, it will belargely due to the work of Walter Plowright, whose brilliant fundamental research had a most important practical outcome.

Walter Plowright, veterinary surgeon and research scientist: born Holbeach, Lincolnshire 20 July 1923; MRCVS 1944; FRCVS 1977; FRVC 1987; Royal Army Veterinary Corps (Major) 1944-48; Colonial Veterinary Service 1950-1964; Animal Virus Research Institute, Pirbright 1968-1971 (seconded East Africa 1966-1971); Professor of Veterinary Virology, Royal Veterinary College 1971-1978; Head, Department of Microbiology, ARC Institute for Research on Animal Diseases, Compton, Berkshire, 1978–83; CMG 1974; King Baudouin International Development Prize 1984; Gold Award, Office Internationale des Epizootics 1988; World Food Prize 1999; married 1959 Dorothy Joy Bell; died Reading 20 February 2010.