Professor Sir Richard Southwood

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The Independent Online

When Sir Richard Southwood's working party issued its report on BSE in 1989, as the then chief cook and bottle washer at the Institute of Biology (of which he was an enthusiastic Fellow) I sought a copy of it, writes Philip N. O'Donoughue [further to the obituary by Lord May of Oxford, 9 November].

I was in for two surprises. One was the unwillingness of the Department of Health and Maff to distribute it, something that disturbed Southwood. The other was to discover how thoughtful and balanced was the committee's approach to this difficult problem. There were many able contributors to the working party's report, but it had the stamp of authority that characterised all Southwood's work.

In his obituary Lord May notes the report's mention of possible spread of BSE to man. It was thought to be unlikely but, if it did occur, so serious that it merited early and thorough investigation. That proposal appeared not to be welcomed by the government of the day, leaving us all too vulnerable when inter-specific transmission did occur. Southwood was disappointed that the advice had been ignored, but apparently resigned to being blamed for that by those who had heard of but not read the report.

In fact it afforded a perceptive early caution to balance voices uncritically urging the safety of beef consumption. Southwood's working party may have vexed the meat trade in this, but by proposing sensible safety measures it did more than most in saving our meat industry.