Walter Plowright, who contributed hugely to the control of diseases of livestock, died on February 19th, 2010, aged 86. Among his many achievements was the development of a highly successful vaccine against perhaps the greatest scourge of bovine livestock – cattle plague or rinderpest – for which he was awarded the World Food Prize in 1999. His vaccine played a major role in the global eradication of this disease.
After graduating from the Royal Veterinary College in 1944 he joined the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, with which he served in Kenya, a country which was to play a major role in his life. He returned there in 1948 as a pathologist engaged in investigating a multiplicity of diseases, one of which was rinderpest. Following a couple of years in Nigeria he returned to Kenya, this time at the Muguga Laboratory of the East African Veterinary Research Organisation (EAVRO), where he worked for over 15 years. It was there, with R.D. Ferris, that he discovered that rinderpest virus was able to grow in cell (tissue) cultures of bovine kidney (BK). Previously rinderpest vaccine had been produced by infecting animals and recovering tissue from them, with the inherent danger of the resultant vaccine containing other disease agents. Not only were BK cells safer in this respect, Plowright showed that continual growth of the virus in BK cells resulted in the virus losing its virulence; it was a candidate vaccine. He went on to demonstrate that his tissue culture vaccine was both safe and efficacious for cattle of all breeds, ages and sex, unlike previous rinderpest vaccines.
In 1964 he joined the Animal Virus Research Institute at Pirbright, Surrey (AVRI; now part of the Institute for Animal Health), though two years later he was seconded to the EAVRO as Head of the Department of Virology. In 1971 he became Chair and Head of the Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Parasitology at the Royal Veterinary College, after which, in 1978, he joined the Institute for Research on Animal Diseases (also now part of The Pirbright Institute), Compton, Berkshire, as Head of the Department of Microbiology. He retired in 1983.