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.

Suggested Topics
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
peopleReports that Brand could stand for Mayor on an 'anti-politics' ticket
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
News
Voluminous silk drawers were worn by Queen Victoria
newsThe silk underwear is part of a growing trade in celebrity smalls
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Candidates with surnames that start with an A have an electoral advantage
newsVoters are biased towards names with letters near start of alphabet
Arts and Entertainment
Isis with Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
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

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?