Lives of the fellows

Frederick Ogden MacCallum

b.27 November 1909 d.6 September 1994
MD Toronto(1932) BSc(1934) LMS(1936) MRCP(1961) FRCPath(1964) FRCP(1970)

Fred MacCallum was a leader in the development and application of virology as a practical tool for the diagnosis and epidemiological study of virus infections. He was born and educated in Toronto, Canada. His father was James M MacCallum, a doctor and later professor of ophthalmology and chairman of the Dominion Medical Council; his mother was Cornelia Scott (née McMaster), niece of the founder of McMaster College (later University). A bright child with a good memory, he enjoyed a wide range of outdoor activities and cultural experiences. Laboratory work became an interest during his medical education at Toronto University and he was awarded a fellowship in bacteriology. As a voracious reader he had noticed growing interest in viruses, then little known, and happily accepted the suggestion that he should go to England to learn about them. This was arranged with Sam Bedson [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.35] at the London Hospital.

From September 1934 Fred lived in Bloomsbury, enjoying the company of other expatriates with whom he explored the sights and backstreets of the city on foot. Psittacosis (thought to be a virus) was under investigation. Facilities were simple, and more attention was paid to safety of cultures from contamination than to the safety of workers. Fred contracted meningeal psittacosis, but recovered. A meticulous worker, he later became a notable expert on safety.

Poised in indecision between returning to Toronto or gaining experience in French and German laboratories, he was made aware of an opening for a MRC-funded researcher to assist G M Findlay [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.129] at the Wellcome Institute investigating viruses causing disease in the tropics. Fred was appointed and was soon breaking new ground in studies of yellow fever, rift valley fever and lymphogranuloma venereum. He also produced yellow fever vaccine and inoculated those going to West Africa, and was associated with Findlay’s investigations of ‘catarrhal jaundice’ and jaundice developing some months after inoculation with the vaccine. Since only the MRC group studying influenza at Hampstead seemed to be looking for viruses in human disease, Fred extended his expertise at clinical rounds at the Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith, to mutual benefit.

In 1938 he joined the staff of the Wellcome Institute. He visited his Toronto family in September 1939 on the way to the International Congress of Microbiology in New York where Findlay and he were to present several papers. Findlay and other senior British workers were recalled to Britain before the meeting (and were at sea when war was declared), leaving Fred to present three different topics and make valuable contacts with the Rockefeller Institute workers and others. He sailed back on the first blacked-out ship after the Athenia was torpedoed. On board he met Iris Churton, whom he married before Christmas.

Findlay became an Army brigadier in West Africa, leaving Fred in a reserved occupation in charge of yellow fever vaccine production and research into problems relevant to the war such as hepatitis. Carriers of hepatitis infection seemed a probable explanation of post-transfusion and post-inoculation hepatitis. Susceptible animals were not available, so volunteer conscientious objectors were enrolled as experimental subjects for inoculation. With their help Fred distinguished and named A and B hepatitis viruses. MacCallum was now a recognized expert, also called on to advise and vaccinate VIPS, including royalty. Consulted at the last minute about Winston Churchill’s flight via Africa to meet Stalin in Moscow, he explained that the vaccine would not have time to give benefit for the journey, though it could enable a certificate to be issued for future such trips. Churchill declined. Two months later a senior RAF officer became jaundiced after having received vaccine of the same batch- a narrow escape for hard-drinking Churchills liver and the war effort (it was then the practice to stabilize the vaccine with ‘normal’ human serum: the serum in this case unknowingly contained hepatitis B virus).

From May 1943 MacCallum’s ‘jaundice team’ was in Cambridge, yellow fever work continued at the Wellcome Institute, and Fred travelled between them by train, collaborating with clinicians and epidemiologists studying hepatitis. He also fire-watched and served in the Home Guard. He was asked to direct a new team to produce rickettsial vaccine against scrub typhus, needed for the war in Malaya. Since other responsibilities continued he limited himself to leading one of the groups and helping to plan the work and the special facilities required for safe work with these highly dangerous organisms. Hepatitis and typhus work ceased at the end of the war with Japan.

In 1946 MacCallum was invited by Robert Cruickshank [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.127], director of the new central laboratory of the Public Health Laboratory Service, to set up a new laboratory to develop and apply diagnostic tests for virus infections. He accepted this challenge and as director of the Virus Reference Laboratory at Colindale brought into the repertoire smallpox, influenza and poliomyelitis after the 1947 epidemic, adding mumps, Coxsackie and an expanding range of other viruses.

By now Fred MacCallum was internationally recognized for his knowledge, experience, skills and sound judgement, much used by the MRC and by WHO. He spent much effort in ‘missionary work’, dispelling ignorance and patiently educating the medical profession about virus infections. To help in this he wrote the concise and useful Virus and rickettsial diseases of man, London, Edward Arnold, 1950, with the help of Bedson, A W Downie [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.138] and C H Stuart-Harris [q.v.]. His laboratory attracted visitors and trainees from Europe and Britain. His travels by invitation extended throughout Europe and to Japan as well as North America. He kept abreast of current literature in several languages during his two hour journeys by train and underground to his home near Oxford.

Then coronary thrombosis struck, in December 1960. He recovered well, but decided to withdraw and start again by introducing low-key virology to Oxford, in cramped shared accommodation at the Radcliffe Infirmary. He continued to participate in MRC-organized national studies on influenza and poliomyelitis vaccines and his special study was of hypogammaglobulinaemic children after polio vaccination. He made the first diagnosis of herpes encephalitis by isolation of the virus from brain biopsy tissue in vivo, and in association with Jules-Jensen he pioneered anti-herpes therapy with iododeoxyuridine dissolved in dimethylsulphoxide for skin and corneal herpes, then for shingles.

By now Fred had become a senior fellow of Corpus Christi College. He formally ‘retired’ in 1975. For twelve more years he worked on insect viruses in Tinsley’s unit at the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, Oxford. Golf, then bowls, reading, contact with nearby family and correspondence with and visits from former colleagues kept his lively mind active and interested until a massive fatal stroke.

Norman R Grist

[Bull.Roy.Coll Path., 1995,90,6-7]

(Volume X, page 310)

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