Obituary: Professor Kenneth Cooper
Tuesday 06 July 1993
KENNETH COOPER was the first incumbent when the Chair of Bacteriology was created at Bristol University in 1951 and his death revives many memories of an important phase in the history of bacteriology.
Before Ken Cooper came to Bristol, his career was both interesting and distinguished. He graduated with a First Class degree in Chemistry at Leeds University and two years later was awarded a Ph D; his thesis was deemed the best of the year and he was awarded the Cohen Prize. His research involved synthesising organic compounds as prospective antiseptics or trypanocidal agents and led to close collaboration with staff of the Medical School, and Professor JW McLeod in particular, in whose department he was appointed Research Assistant and, later, Lecturer in Bacteriology. Cooper realised that he would not progress far without a medical qualification. To remedy this he studied medicine part-time (an option no longer possible) and received the MRCS and LRCP in 1936.
In 1938 Cooper moved to Bristol as Senior Bacteriologist to direct the laboratories in the university's Department of Preventive Medicine. These included clinical pathology and clinical biochemistry, as well as bacteriology. At that time over a thousand cases of diphtheria were being reported annually as well as many cases of scarlet fever, typhoid fever, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases. Antibiotics as therapeutic agents had yet to be discovered and only the earlier sulphonamides were available. Cooper had the difficult task of steering the work of the laboratories throughout the war years.
Soon after the commencement of war the Ministry of Health made Bristol the centre for the Emergency Public Health Laboratory Service for the West of England and Cooper was appointed Director. As a precautionary measure, due to the heavy bombing of the city, he set up satellite laboratories in biology departments in schools throughout the city. Fortunately these were not required. To maintain the public health of the city, with broken water mains and other bomb damage, was no mean task. A number of medical staff attached to the US forces shared the laboratories.
Despite the great pressures imposed during this period, Cooper built up collaborative research with his staff and expanded the teaching of bacteriology to students in the Medical Faculty and especially to science students. From a one-year subsidiary course, through a sequence of stages, he eventually established courses leading to a single Honours Microbiology degree. In recognition, the university made him Reader in Bacteriology in 1946 and the first Professor of Bacteriology. At this time the Public Health Laboratory Service became independent of the university with its own Director. Later, when it was decided to move the department into a new building (School for Medical Sciences), Cooper designed the laboratories, and also the Animal House for handling infectious materials of the whole medical school.
Outside the university Cooper made considerable contributions to advances in microbiology. As a founder member of the Society for General Microbiology he supported the relatively new approach of considering microbiology as a science rather than placing too great an emphasis on medical aspects. He was a committee member of the society for 16 years and held the offices of General Secretary and Treasurer for 13 years.
In addition to being a great scientist and teacher, Ken Cooper was the kindest of colleagues. Many of us who came under his leadership are immensely grateful for his encouragement and wise counsel.
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