Lives of the fellows

Leslie Harold Collier

b.9 February 1921 d.14 March 2011
MRCS LRCP(1943) MB BS Lond(1947) MD(1952) DSc(1968) MRCP(1968) FRCPath(1975) FRCP(1980)

Leslie Collier, professor of virology at the University of London and a consultant pathologist at the Royal London Hospital, played a key role in the eradication of smallpox. Another dramatic discovery he made was the link between chlamydia and trachoma, which research was to save many sufferers from blindness.

Born in London, he was the son of Maurice Leonard Collier. Educated at Brighton College, he studied medicine at University College London and University College Hospital (UCH). His medical training was interrupted by service in the RAMC in Italy from 1943 to 1947. On demobilisation he qualified MB BS and worked at St Helier Hospital in Carshalton as an assistant pathologist before joining the staff of the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine in Chelsea as an assistant bacteriologist the following year. In 1955 he was appointed head of the department of virology at the Lister Institute and, two years later, he also became honorary director of the Medical Research Council’s trachoma research unit with a small team in Chelsea and an expatriate researcher in Gambia. He held both positions for nearly 20 years until, in 1974, he was promoted to the post of director of the vaccines and sera laboratories at the Lister.

In 1948, when he began his work at the Lister, an estimated 50 million cases of smallpox were occurring each year. There was a vaccine available but it would deteriorate within three days of being taken out of a refrigerator thus eliminating large parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South America from protection. Collier developed an American method of freeze-drying the vaccine using peptone, a soluble protein. He published the results as ‘The development of a stable smallpox vaccine’ (J Hyg, 1955, 53, 76). Now a health worker could take a vial of freeze dried vaccine (enough to vaccinate 200 people) great distances in any temperature since tests showed that it retained its potency after two years at 45ºC – all that was needed was saline solution to reconstitute the powder, a pot for boiling needles and two plastic tubes for clean and used needles.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) decided, in 1967, to use Collier’s vaccine in an attempt to stamp out smallpox. At the time it seemed impossible as 60% of the world’s population then lived in areas where the disease was endemic. The vaccine was produced in bulk and, by the mid-1970s, over 150,000 people were involved in the process of vaccination. The last natural occurrence was in Somalia in 1977, and, in 1980, the WHO declared the disease eradicated.

At the trachoma research unit, he and his research staff managed to make the link between chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease, and the incidence of trachoma, a disease which causes blindness among millions of people in the tropics. The initial discovery was published by him and his co-author J Sowa as ‘Isolation of trachoma virus in embryonate eggs’ (Lancet, 1958, i, 993) and later, with S Sowa, J Sowa and W Blyth ‘Trachoma and allied infections in a Gambian village’ (Med Res Coun Spec Rep Ser 1965, no 308). This work was to make new and more effective treatments possible for a dreadful disease.

In 1978 the Lister Institute closed. Collier had been appointed professor of virology at London University in 1966, a post he held until 1988, and in 1987 he also became a consultant pathologist at the Royal London Hospital. A prolific author, he was editor in chief of the ninth edition of the ‘microbiologist’s bible’, Topley and Wilson’s Principles of bacteriology, virology and immunology (London, Arnold, 1998) which won the Society of Authors’ award in the category for an advanced edited book. He also wrote Human virology: a text for students of medicine, dentistry and microbiology (Oxford, University Press, 1993) which was reissued several times and co-edited, with J S Oxford, Recent advances in antiviral chemotherapy (London, Academic Press, 1980).

A fellow of the Royal Society of Pathologists, he was president of the pathology section of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1986 to 1988.

Outside medicine, he enjoyed scuba diving and fell walking, and, as he put it ‘attempting to play the classical guitar’.

In 1942 he married the film producer, Adeline Hannah née Barnett, the daughter of Mark John Barnett. She survived him but, sadly, their son, David, predeceased his father.

RCP editor

[The Guardian www.theguardian.com/science/2011/may/09/leslie-collier-obituary; The Telegraph www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/8399116/Professor-Leslie-Collier.html - both accessed 30 July 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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