Lives of the fellows

Edward Joseph Lister Lowbury

b.6 December 1913 d.10 July 2007
OBE(1979) BSc Oxon(1936) BM BCh(1939) DM(1957) FRCPath(1963) MRCP(1972) Hon DSc Aston(1977) FRCP(1977) FRCS(1978) Hon LLD Birm(1980)

Edward Joseph Lister Lowbury was a pioneering and innovative bacteriologist who was an expert on hospital infection and a distinguished writer and poet. Born in Hampstead, he was the son of Benjamin William Lowbury who was of Latvian-Jewish descent, his surname having been recently anglicised from Loewnberg. His father was a GP and a great admirer of Joseph Lister, hence his son’s middle names. His mother, Alice Sarah née Hallé, had been born in Brazil of German-Jewish ancestry and was a member of the family of the founder of the famous orchestra. Educated at St Paul’s School, where he twice won the poetry prize, he studied physiology at University College, Oxford, where he also continued his literary pursuits and won the Newdigate prize in 1934 and the Matthew Arnold Memorial essay prize in 1937. Continuing his studies at the London Hospital Medical College, he was taught by, among others, Russell Brain [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.60] and Donald Hunter [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.288].

After qualifying in 1939, he did house jobs at various London hospitals before training as a bacteriologist at the Emergency Public Health Laboratory Service in Cambridge. He joined the RAMC in 1943 as a specialist in pathology with the rank of major. Posted to Kenya, he took a great interest in the local folk medicine and was one of the editors of the wartime literary magazine, Equator. He also had a collection of poems Crossing the line (London, Hutchinson, 1947) win first prize in a competition judged by Louis MacNeice.

On demobilisation in 1946, he joined the staff of the Medical Research Council (MRC) and worked at the Common Cold Unit alongside James Lovelock for three years. He then joined the MRC burns unit at the Birmingham Accident Hospital as head of bacteriology and was also senior clinical lecturer in the pathology department of the University of Birmingham. As founder and first honorary director of the Hospital Infection Research Laboratory (HIRL) at what is now known as City Hospital, Birmingham, he lived out the promise of his middle names by becoming one of the foremost researchers into hospital infection.

He remained in Birmingham for the rest of his career. One of his outstanding achievements was to confirm the work of his predecessor, Leonard Coleman, into massively reducing the incidence of infection by using closed ventilated dressing rooms for burns treatment. Later, with Owen Lidwell, he organised a large trial of the procedure in joint replacement surgery. His work included studying the epidemiology of infection in the region’s hospitals and he chaired the MRC subcommittee that produced the important report ‘Aseptic methods in the operating suite’ (Lancet, 1968, 1, 831-9).

For 30 years he kept a record of the occurrence of antibiotic resistance in which he noted the emergence of a new plasmid produced by a common form of bacteria (pseudomonas aeruginosa) that made it resistant to antibiotics. Later he developed, with Rod Jones, a pseudomonas vaccine. He also demonstrated that overuse of a new antibiotic led to increased staphylococcus resistance which could be reversed by reduction in use. Long before alcohol became the norm in 1974, he had been working with Harold Lilly on controlled trials of the effectiveness of various surgical and hygienic methods of hand disinfection. The tests he developed were still in use as the basis for European standards when he died. He also helped to develop similar tests to solve the problem of antibacterial compounds for use in the tropics.

He retired from the MRC in 1979 but continued to work and lecture for many years. Founder member and first president of the Hospital Infection Society, he was, among many academic honours, visiting professor in medical microbiology at Aston University. He published over 220 scientific papers, many chapters and two important textbooks. The first of these, which he wrote with Graham Ayliffe, the first director of the HIRL, was Drug resistance in antimicrobial therapy (Springfield, Illinois, Thomas,1974). The following year, he produced, with Ayliffe, A M Geddes, and J D Williams, The control of hospital infection (London, Chapman and Hall, 1975). The latter was re-issued in several revised editions, one of its more interesting pieces of advice was that ‘showers tend to increase rather than reduce the number of bacteria shed from the skin. Staff should therefore not take showers immediately before operations’.

Alongside his medical life was his poetry. It was said that he always carried a notebook in which he wrote medical ideas at one end and ideas for poems at the other. He remarked that they met in the middle for ‘mutual enlightenment’. Although he was also known to have said that he kept the two apart by ‘wearing a plain trilby to the lab and a pork-pie hat with a wavy brim when I went out with my artist and poet friends’. In all he published 14 books of poetry beginning with Fire: a symphonic ode (Oxford, Blackwell, 1934), published when he was still an undergraduate at Oxford. His collected poems were published in 1993 and a Festschrift was also published then to mark his eightieth year. In this volume Physic meet and metaphysic: a celebration on Edward Lowbury’s 80th birthday (ed by Yann Lovelock, Salzburg, University Press, 1993), his poetry is described as being ‘a sort of missing link between the Georgians and The Movement’. His work has been described as giving a lyrical expression to interesting ideas without being either over sentimental or too simplistic. Another writer commented on his narrative gift – both in life and art – for the off-beat and macabre, and indeed, he also published a ‘near-macabre’ book of poems for children Green magic (London, Chatto and Windus, 1972).

From an early age, he was a lover of classical music, having grown up listening to his aunt playing Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. He regularly played the piano himself until almost the end of his life and sent one of his poems, inspired by Sibelius’s work Tapiola, to the composer who received it enthusiastically. A founder member of the Birmingham Chamber Music Society, he visited the Aldeburgh Festival frequently and published the book of poems Variations on Aldeburgh (Hitchin, Mandeville, 1987). He was fascinated by the life of the sixteenth century poet, physician and composer, Thomas Campion and, together with his wife and the composer Timothy Salter, he published Thomas Campion; poet, composer, physician (London, Chatto and Windus, 1970). Another passion was steam engines and he was said to imitate their noises perfectly.

When he returned from Africa, having won a poetry competition with his book Crossing the line he sent a copy to the poet Andrew Young whose work he greatly admired. On visiting him at home he fell in love with Young’s daughter Alison, a concert pianist, and they married in 1954. They had three daughters and the two youngest became professional musicians. Together they published a life of his father- in-law, To shirk no idleness: a critical biography of the poet Andrew Young (Salzburg/Oxford, University of Salzburg Press, 1997). Alison predeceased him in 2001 and, having become blind through glaucoma, he went into a nursing home. Their three daughters, one of whom was called Ruth, survived him.

RCP editor

[The Guardian ; Wikipedia; BMJ 2007 335 353 - all the above accessed 19 March 2015; Lives of the Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons of England - accessed 16 April 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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