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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
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

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m