Lives of the fellows

Clennel Evelyn Van Rooyen

b.28 September 1907 d.16 March 1989
MB ChB Edin(1931) MD(1934) DSc(1942) MRCP Lond(1946) FRCPC(1956) FRCPath(1964) FRCP(1967) FRSC(1970)

Clennel Evelyn van Rooyen’s initial postgraduate training in bacteriology and virology was as assistant bacteriologist in the department of bacteriology at the University of Edinburgh under the guidance of T J Mackie, where he early decided to specialize in virology while maintaining an interest in some aspects of microbiology and pathology. After settling in Canada he played a major role in the search for the polio vaccine.

Van, as almost everyone called him, was born in Ceylon, then a Crown Colony, where his father Charles Ellard van Rooyen was a physician in H M Colonial Medical Service. He was educated in England at Bracondale School, Norwich, Norfolk, and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

During the second world war he served in the RAMC as a pathologist, with the rank of major, being posted to the pathology laboratory of No 1 General Hospital of the BEF serving in France. Evacuated from France on the advance of the German armies, he was posted to No 31 General Hospital, Scottish Command, in Edinburgh, but was soon sent overseas again. Unfortunately his ship was sunk but he landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in June 1941, before being posted to No 15 General Hospital, MEF, in Cairo.

In Egypt, apart from performing his regular duties, he was able to conduct some research in the Central Pathological Laboratory and isolated a ‘wild’ Type 2 polio virus from the nervous tissues of a soldier who died of poliomyelitis. The virus seemed to have some unusual properties. Colleagues in the USA developed the strain, which became known as Lederle-MEF poliovirus and was incorporated into vaccines containing live polio virus, to constitute one component of a Sabin-type live oral vaccine. This was widely used for a period, apparently with success. Van was mentioned in despatches in 1944 and awarded the Order of Ismail (military) in recognition of services rendered to the Kingdom of Egypt.

At the end of the war, he returned to Edinburgh for a short period, but had already decided to continue his career in Canada. He married Hilda Price in 1946 and there were two children of the marriage, John Price and Jennifer Mary. He was a devoted family man despite his numerous duties as a teacher and research worker.

In 1947, replacing James Craigie, he took up the joint posts of professor and head of the department of virus infections at the School of Hygiene, University of Toronto, established in 1926 by the Rockefeller Foundation, and research member of the Connaught Medical Research Laboratories. Both the Connaught and the School were part of the University, under the overall direction of R D Defries. The School of Hygiene was one of only three in Canada at the time.

Van’s early interest in virology had led to the publication of Virus diseases in man, London, Oxford University Press, 1940, co-authored with A J Rhodes. A second edition of this work was published in New York by T Nelson in 1948. It was felt that there was a need for a shorter textbook which would appeal to the members of the medical and related professions, scientists and students, and van Rooyen and A J Rhodes wrote Textbook of virology. New York, T Nelson, 1949. It ran into four more editions: Baltimore, Williams and Wilkins. An Indian edition of Vol.5 appeared in 1968 with an English text, and an edition with a Spanish text appeared in 1973.

As well as being an active research worker in his own right, van Rooyen was happy to assist in the development of the careers of others. With A J Rhodes, he helped to organize the preparation of inactivated poliovaccine on a large scale for testing in 1954 - the Francis trial. The results of this trial were considered satisfactory, an opinion which is now generally accepted, and led to the production of inactivated poliovaccine of the Salk type in the early 1950s. Many colleagues active in the School of Hygiene or the Connaught also gave them valuable assistance.

In 1956, Van moved on to Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, as professor and head of the department of microbiology and director of the Nova Scotia Provincial Public Health Laboratories. He also served as consultant bacteriologist in the Victoria General Hospital, and was later appointed consultant bacteriologist to the Canadian Forces Medical Council, Government of Canada. He served as president of the Canadian Society of Microbiology, and as a member of council of the MRC of Canada. He was also editor of the Canadian Journal of Microbiology.

Few who served with Van will forget his unique characteristics and approach to life. He was, in the best sense of the word, a gentleman and devoted to helping others. In his later years, van Rooyen became blind but in the words of his colleague A J MacLeod ‘Van was a noble, honourable man who bore his tragic blindness with grace, dignity and goodwill to all’.

A J Rhodes
A J MacLeod

(Volume IX, page 539)

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