Discoverer of Rinderpest vaccine dies
- Anyone whose ancestors were living in Africa in the 1890s will probably have
heard of the Rinderpest. In those days railways were still in their infancy,
and only connected major towns. The death of draft animals had a devastating
effect on transport and trade, as well as for people whose primary source of
food was cattle, like the Maasai of East Africa.
WALTER PLOWRIGHT, 86
Walter Plowright, 86, dies; his cattle vaccine saved lives
By Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times
March 23, 2010
Walter Plowright, 86, the British veterinarian who discovered a vaccine that
has almost totally eliminated the cattle disease rinderpest, died Feb. 19 in
London. No cause of death was reported.
Most Americans probably have never heard of rinderpest, a virus in the same
family as measles that causes one of the most lethal diseases in cattle. It
never established a foothold in the Americas and was eliminated from Europe
early in the 20th century, but its introduction to Africa in 1889 in cattle
shipped from India caused what some consider the most catastrophic natural
disaster ever to affect that continent.
The virus, which strikes primarily cloven-footed animals, killed nearly 90
percent of cattle in sub-Saharan Africa, along with sheep, goats, buffaloes,
giraffes and wildebeests. The loss of plow animals, herds and hunting
resulted in mass starvation that killed one-third of Ethiopia's population
and two-thirds of the Masai people in Tanzania. Subsequent outbreaks further
contributed to poverty and starvation in the region.
Dr. Plowright was a young veterinary pathologist assigned to the United
Kingdom's East African Veterinary Research Organization laboratory at
Muguga, Kenya, when he and colleague R.D. Ferris began studying the
rinderpest virus in 1956. Several groups had tried without success to
develop a weakened version of the virus that could serve as a vaccine in the
way that Edward Jenner had used a weak cowpox virus to produce a smallpox
Dr. Plowright decided to use the relatively new technique of growing the
virus in cells in glass tubes. After passaging the virus through nearly 100
generations of cell cultures over eight years, he and Ferris obtained a
weakened version that could provoke immunity to rinderpest but did not
produce disease. The weakened virus was inexpensive to produce and could be
grown in large quantities.
The vaccine, called tissue culture rinderpest vaccine, was quickly adopted,
but cattle growers did not initially use it for long enough and outbreaks
occurred again. One such outbreak in Nigeria resulted in more than $2
billion in losses.
In 1994, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization led a global
eradication program that trained veterinarians and farmers to recognize and
control rinderpest and promoted widespread vaccinations. The last major
outbreak of the disease occurred in Kenya in 2001, and the U.N. agency is
expected to declare the virus eradicated in the wild this year. Rinderpest
and smallpox will then be the only disease viruses that have been eradicated
The FAO has said that the cost of the rinderpest eradication campaign was
about $3 million. That investment, the agency says, has led to an increase
of $47 billion in food production in Africa and a $289 billion increase in
Dr. Plowright's technique has been adopted for other viral diseases,
including African swine fever, malignant catarrhal fever and poxviruses. In
1999, he was awarded the prestigious World Food Prize.
Walter Plowright was born July 20, 1923, in Holbeach, Lincolnshire, England.
He graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in London in 1944, served in
the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and in 1950 joined the Colonial Veterinary
Dr. Plowright is survived by his wife of 50 years, Dorothy.