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Obituary: Max Sterne

Max Sterne's vaccine against anthrax became history's most potent weapon against the disease and turned what had been a scourge of beast and man for centuries into what is now an occasional problem.

Sterne was born in Trieste in 1905, of Austrian parents, who took him at the age of four to South Africa, where he enjoyed childhood and adolescence in the sun and surf of Durban. As a child, at the time of the First World War, with a German-sounding surname, he felt the need of self-defence and, when his father offered him violin lessons, asked for boxing lessons instead, ultimately becoming the South African Universities welterweight champion. He was a keen runner and swimmer, winning the South African 100-yards sprint championship and, having taught himself the Australian Crawl from a book, went on to become the South African 100-yards freestyle champion. Even at 90 he was still swimming with perfect style.

Sterne studied veterinary science at the Transvaal University College (later Pretoria University), qualifying in 1928. He did not immediately go into veterinary service but took charge of a large cattle ranch in the Belgian Congo (now the troubled Zaire) which, from the anecdotes he recounted, constituted a very formative part of his life. Returning to South Africa after 18 months, he was appointed to a small laboratory near Pietermaritzburg, mainly testing field samples for East Coast Fever. His wife, Tikvah Alper, an eminent scientist in her own right, recorded that "a morning of looking at smears was enough: afternoons were devoted to pursuits such as jigsaw puzzles".

She added, however, that it was the feeling of being somewhat unfulfilled by this existence that led to Sterne's amusing himself studying growth of bacteria in liquid cultures using photocell turbidimetry (the turbidity of the culture as a measure of how well the organisms have grown) - an advanced approach at the time. They had known each other since he was 12 and she was nine, and were married in 1932; together they set up a small laboratory in the outhouse normally used as a servant's quarters.

In 1934, Sterne secured a position at the world famous Onderstepoort Veterinary Research Institute, north of Pretoria, with the principal duty of preparing attenuated anthrax vaccine, using the method developed by Louis Pasteur in the 1880s. Valuable as Pasteur's vaccine had been, striking the correct balance between virulence and immunogenicity during its preparation was notoriously difficult and casualties among vaccinated animals were not unusual. In the face of some scepticism, Sterne began small experiments which led to seminal work isolating the "Sterne" strain (34F2) of the anthrax bacillus which became, and remains, the basis of most livestock anthrax vaccines in use throughout the world today.

Publications in the Onderstepoort Journal were not widely cited elsewhere in the world in those days, and his signal achievement did not earn him the recognition he deserved at the time. In fact, his strain, freely handed out on request in the spirit of generosity that has largely been lost in today's competitive atmosphere, became known and widely used as the "Weybridge strain", with few knowing its history or origin.

Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, precisely one day before Sterne and his family were due to leave South Africa so that he could take up a scholarship to do his Diploma of Bacteriology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. His leave of absence was cancelled (although the family possessions did make the return trip to Southampton and back). Active service, consisting of mounting guard on the Union Buildings in Pretoria, only lasted six weeks before the government veterinary service reclaimed him. He finally went to the London School in 1946, returning to South Africa in 1948. His and his wife's political views, however, were at odds with the government of the day and they left the country in 1951, with Sterne taking up a position at the Wellcome Research Laboratories in Kent.

Sterne's expertise extended well beyond the confines of anthrax. He was, for example, also a research pioneer into types C and D botulism toxins. At Wellcome he continued to pursue his interests in anthrax and botulism and progressed into developing bacterial culture methods which remain today the basis of sophisticated technologies. Subsequent results of his work were a number of highly successful Wellcome vaccines, both veterinary and human.

Max Sterne was an outstanding scientist but, at the same time, a modest, indeed humble man. Recognition did finally come, at least among his colleagues, and in 1985, at the age of 80, he went to Texas to received the Karl F. Meyer Gold Cane award of the American Epidemiology Society, for services to animal medicine. Today, his work on anthrax would have undoubtedly led to his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society and probably a knighthood.

Max Sterne, immunologist: born Trieste, Italy 1 June 1905; married 1932 Tikvah Alper (died 1995; two sons); died Sarisbury Green, Hampshire 26 February 1997.