Lives of the fellows

George Stanley Nelson

b.27 November 1923 d.31 March 2009
MB ChB St And(1948) DTM&H Liverp(1953) MD(1956) DAP&E(1960) DSc (1966) MRCP(1971) FRCP(1981) FRCPath

George Stanley Nelson was professor of parasitology at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. He was born in Kendal, in the Lake District, the son of Horatio Nelson, a bank manager. After attending Heversham School, he studied medicine at St Andrew’s University and Dundee Royal Infirmary. When he qualified in 1948 he worked for a year as a house physician at the Royal Infirmary, and then returned to St Andrew’s as a junior lecturer in pathology until he left for Africa in 1950 to become a medical officer in the Ugandan Medical Service.

He was in charge of the West Nile District – an area of some 400,000 people. There was not much scope to research pathology, so he changed his specialist interest to parasitology and studied leprosy, onchocerciasis and schistosomiasis, while also working to complete his MD thesis. During these years he found time to study for the Liverpool DTM&H. On completion of his MD in 1956 he joined the Kenya Medical Service as a member of the division of vector borne disease, which was a famous centre for research in parasitic diseases. In 1959, while he was still in Nairobi, he joined the course for the diploma in applied parasitology and entomology (DAP&E) at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), which he passed the following year.

On leaving Kenya in 1963, Nelson was offered the post of reader in medical parasitology at the LSHTM. In 1966 he became professor and head of the department of helminthology. In the 13 years that he spent in London he put together an outstanding team and made the department a major centre for studies in schistosomiasis, filariasis, onchocerciasis, hydatid disease and dracunculiasis. A move to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in 1980 appeared a surprising choice to some, but it was where he had initially studied tropical medicine in 1953. Appointed Walter Myers professor of parasitology he worked hard to develop the units of immunology and genetics at the school and to promote the hydatid research group in collaboration with Kenya, where there was the highest prevalence of the disease in the world .

He wrote or contributed to over 180 papers on various aspects of parasitology especially filariasis, zoonoses and schistosomiais. While in the West Nile, he carried out what was probably the most extensive survey of schistosomiasis ever done, examining over 10,000 people. He claimed it was easy to obtain samples ‘because all he had to do was get up in the morning, shoot a hippopotamus on the Nile and trade chunks of its meat for stool specimens’. A stimulating and amusing lecturer, even on rather dull seeming topics, he was constantly in touch with the areas of his research and concerned with the problems of underfunding in poor countries. He wrote that immunologists not in close contact with the field could become ‘frustrated and disillusioned if their elegant diagnostic tools and synthesized vaccines remain on the shelf whilst the parasites continue to take their toll in the countries which cannot afford, or are not prepared to use, the new tools’.

In 1951, he married a nurse, Frances Sheila née Williamson, whose father, Alastair, was a merchant. They had met while he was in Dundee and married in Nairobi Cathedral before he took up his appointment in Arua, western Uganda. Three of their four children (they had two daughters and two sons) were born in East Africa.

When he was a teenager he played in a junior international rugby match between England and Wales. He started playing golf while a student in Scotland and it remained a lifelong enthusiasm. Gardening, music and natural history (particularly ornithology) were also favourite pastimes. Among his many honours he was proud to become vicepresident and president of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in the late 1980s.

Sheila survived him when he died, as did his children and grandchildren.

RCP editor

[‘Professor George S Nelson; an appreciation’ by George Kinoti in MacPherson and Craig (eds) Parasitic helminthes and zoonoses in Africa (London, Unwin, 1991)]

(Volume XII, page web)

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