Lives of the fellows

Thomas Henry Flewett

b.29 June 1922 d.12 December 2006
MB BCh BAO Belf(1945) MD(1948) FRCPath(1968) MRCP(1974) FRCP(1978)

Thomas Henry Flewett was a leading virologist and the first to name one of the most common causes of diarrhoeal diseases, the rotaviruses. He was born in Simla, India, the son of William Edward Flewett, a member of the Indian Forestry Service. He was educated at Campbell College, Belfast, and then went on to study medicine at Queen’s University, where he graduated with honours in 1945. He held house posts at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, and, from 1946 to 1948, he was a demonstrator in bacteriology and pathology at Queen’s University.

In 1948 he became a member of the scientific staff of the National Institute for Medical Research, Mill Hill, where he began his interest in viruses. He spent three years researching common cold viruses and the effect of influenza viruses on cells in culture. This led to his first use of electron microscopy, of which he became a leading authority.

In 1951 he moved to the University of Leeds, where he was a lecturer in bacteriology. In 1953 he was involved in containing a smallpox outbreak in Todmodern, Yorkshire.

In 1956 Flewett was appointed as a consultant virologist to East Birmingham Hospital, where he established one of the first virus laboratories in England. His interests included influenza, coxsackie A and coxsackie B viruses, smallpox and hepatitis B. He also discovered the cause of hand, foot and mouth disease. In the early 1970s, his work led to the discovery of the viruses causing diarrhoeal diseases, particularly in young children – the rotaviruses. Norwalk virus had been described in 1971 and other larger viruses had been seen in gut biopsies in Australia. Flewett showed these viruses could be seen directly in faeces using electron microscopes. As they resembled wheels, they were named ‘rotaviruses’, from the Latin, ‘rota’, wheel.

Flewett also identified two new species of adenovirus, which can cause diseases of the respiratory system. With H G Pereira, he also discovered picobirnaviruses, and, with others, the first described human torovirus, a virus which usually causes gastroenteritis in animals.

He was very much a practical, hands-on leader of his laboratory, and could use and, in the case of the electron microscope, maintain his equipment. (One of his past times was the collection and restoration of old clocks and watches.)

His laboratory in Birmingham was a World Health Organization (WHO) Reference and Research Centre for Rotavirus Infections from 1980 until his retirement in 1987. He was chairman of the WHO steering committee on viral diarrhoeal diseases from 1990 to 1993, and a member until 1996.

He was a member of the board of the Public Health Laboratory Service from 1977 to 1983, and was chairman of the Public Health Laboratory Service committee on electron microscopy from 1977 to 1987. He was a member of the senior management team of East Birmingham (now Heartlands) Hospital, and helped establish the regional immunology laboratory there.

In 1978 it was Flewett’s laboratory that confirmed that Janet Parker, a medical photographer, was suffering from smallpox. It was later shown she had come into contact with the virus via an air vent above Henry Bedson’s [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.30] laboratory, where he had been investigating smallpox. Parker became one of the last people of die of the disease, and, tragically, Bedson, a friend and colleague of Flewett, committed suicide. Flewett, with contributions from other medical consultants, went on to establish a trust fund for Bedson’s children

Outside medicine, Flewett enjoyed golf and won many trophies. In 1951 he married June Evelyn Hall. She predeceased him. He was survived by their two daughters, Janet Anne and Judy Elizabeth. Another daughter, Pamela Margaret Jane, died in infancy.

RCP editor

[, 2007 334 753; Bulletin of the Royal College of Pathologists April 2007 138 58; ‘Thomas Henry Flewett’ Wikipedia – accessed 27 August 2013; information from Judy Rapp (née Flewett) August 2018]

(Volume XII, page web)

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