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

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