E. S. Anderson

Ingenious microbiologist who investigated how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics


Ephraim Saul Anderson, microbiologist: born Newcastle upon Tyne 28 October 1911; Registrar in Bacteriology, Postgraduate Medical School, London, 1946-47; staff, Enteric Reference Laboratory, Public Health Laboratory Service, London, 1947-78, Deputy Director 1952-54, Director 1954-78; FRS 1968; CBE 1976; married (three sons); died London 14 March 2006.

E. S. Anderson was a meticulous and innovative microbiologist whose professional life was devoted to the control of gastro-intestinal infections such as typhoid fever. His greatest achievements came through exacting investigations into how bacteria become insensitive to the antibiotics normally used to treat these diseases. He also made relentless efforts to convince both medical colleagues and politicians that more prudent use of antibiotics would reduce the scale of the problems posed by drug-resistant organisms.

Andy Anderson, as he was known to friends and colleagues (he hated the names Ephraim Saul), made internationally acclaimed contributions to our knowledge of the genes responsible for resistance - and did so without benefit of the techniques that now greatly facilitate such work.

At the same time he was a major driving force behind moves to curb the spread of resistance through restrictions on the indiscriminate use of these drugs, especially in the rearing of calves, pigs, poultry and other livestock in Britain. Long into retirement, he remained concerned that such initiatives had not gone far enough to combat a phenomenon which (in the form of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, MRSA, for example) remains with us today.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, Anderson studied medicine in that city before working at the Postgraduate Medical School, London, and serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War (including time in North Africa with the original Desert Rats). But it was across London at the Public Health Laboratory Service in Colindale (now part of the Health Protection Agency) that he carried out his pioneering researches, particularly when he was the Director of the PHLS's Enteric Reference Laboratory from 1954 until 1978. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1968 and appointed CBE in 1976.

It was Anderson, working with Betty Hobbs, who established that the 1964 typhoid fever epidemic in Aberdeen was almost certainly caused by Salmonella typhi sucked into an imperfectly sealed can of corned beef when it was dumped into contaminated water in Argentina to cool. Their clever detective work pointed to a similar origin for the 1948 Oswestry outbreak, which had until then remained a mystery.

But the studies which brought Anderson worldwide recognition were devoted to the plasmids (tiny packages of DNA, separate from the nucleus) that render the bacteria responsible for typhoid fever, bacterial food poisoning and related conditions insensitive to antibiotics. His researches embraced not only the molecular genetics of drug resistance but also its evolutionary significance.

The Institute for Scientific Information highlighted the impact of this work in 1986 by selecting a key 1968 paper as a "citation classic" for the extraordinary number of times other scientists had cited it in the intervening years. As well as reviewing Anderson's ideas about the ecology of resistant organisms, the paper reported an ingenious technique, the so-called triple cross, which he used to study a strain of Salmonella typhimurium that caused gastroenteritis in both calves and humans and was insensitive to ampicillin, streptomycin, sulphonamides and tetracyclines.

Indeed, the public health importance of plasmids stems from their capacity to confer resistance not just against one drug but against several - and to pass rapidly between different bacteria. As with microbes in a human population, plasmids can spread like an epidemic in a bacterial population, making all its members drug-resistant. This is more likely to occur if the organisms are constantly exposed to low levels of the drug(s) concerned.

These disturbing properties led Anderson to criticise animal feedstuff manufacturers for incorporating antibiotics in their products to promote growth and to prevent disease (which could be better achieved by improvements in husbandry). By the mid-1960s, it had become clear that this practice was encouraging the emergence of drug-insensitive bacteria in farm animals, creating reservoirs of resistance transmissible to bacteria causing human diseases.

Writing in Nature, Anderson called for "a re-examination of the whole question of the use of antibiotics and other drugs in the raising of livestock". This happened neither as quickly nor as extensively as he hoped. In 1968, however, following publicity in New Scientist, Anderson's agitation did trigger the establishment of a committee of inquiry under Sir Michael Swann and consequent government action to limit the agricultural applications of antibiotics. Thereafter, only those not used, or little used, in treatment could be incorporated in feedstuffs. Although veterinarians were still permitted to give other antibiotics to animals in their immediate care, mass medication was at an end.

Anyone who knew Anderson was aware that he could be "difficult". Yet his professional anger was invariably righteous - as when he attacked a pharmaceutical company which, even amidst growing concern over the risks associated with the misuse of antibiotics on the farm, marketed a drinking water additive for broiler chickens containing chloramphenicol and erythromycin. These are powerful drugs, the former being a particularly crucial weapon to combat typhoid fever, a potentially fatal disease. So the launch of a product certain to increase the reservoir of resistance was foolhardy in the extreme. The anger and the furore were justified. The product was withdrawn.

Anderson's sporadic intemperance could be tempered by a sense of mischief. This was apparent when he delivered the Marjory Stephenson Memorial Lecture to the Society for General Microbiology in 1975 (the same year that he received an honorary DSc from Edinburgh University). Though such occasions were normally wholly sober affairs, his address was accompanied by frequent laughter as he brandished a sequence of glossy advertisements, torn from medical and veterinary journals, promoting the boundless virtues of antimicrobial drugs. Entertaining yes, though the central message, under the title "Push Hard - Or How to Promote Resistance", was essentially serious, even grave.

Whether speaking or writing, Andy Anderson was one of those rare individuals who delighted in crafting perfect sentences, not out of pedantry but out of a fondness for precision in communication, especially when the subject was science. His aesthetic enjoyment of effective prose made nonsense of clichés about a supposed antipathy between the literary world and scientific objectivity.

Anderson should be remembered too for his robust insistence that activists were grossly exaggerating the potential dangers when genetic modification first emerged in the early 1970s. Now that this technique is practised safely throughout the world, with none of the prophesied horrors having come to pass but with GM drugs such as interferons saving countless lives every day, the wisdom of his judgement is clear.

Another fashionable position he rejected was the distinction between pure and applied science, especially when the former was neglected at the expense of the latter under the misguided funding arrangements of the Thatcher government. Like Louis Pasteur, the greatest of all microbiologists, E.S. Anderson saw no demarcation between his fundamental investigations into the behaviour of micro-organisms and his dedicated efforts to combat the diseases they cause.

Bernard Dixon

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

Neil Pavier: Commercial Analyst

£50,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you a professionally qualified commercial ...

Loren Hughes: Financial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Loren Hughes: Are you looking for a new opportunity that wi...

Sheridan Maine: Finance Analyst

Circa £45,000-£50,000 + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ac...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor