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date: 07 March 2021

Collier, Leslie Haroldfree

(1921–2011)
  • John Oxford

Collier, Leslie Harold (1921–2011), virologist, was born at 2 D'Arblay Street, Soho, London, on 9 February 1921, the son of Maurice Leonard Collier (1893/4–1939), a millinery warehouseman who later became proprietor of his own shop, and his wife, Ruth, née Phillips. He was educated at Brighton College, then studied medicine at University College Hospital medical school in London. It was in London that he met Adeline Hannah Barnett (b. 1921), daughter of Mark John Barnett, a commercial traveller for an engineering firm. They married at St Pancras register office, London, on 30 November 1942 and had one son, David (b. 1948). Meanwhile, after wartime service in Italy with the Royal Army Medical Corps, Collier worked briefly as a pathologist at St Helier Hospital, Carshalton, before joining the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine in 1948.

At that time the world was at the mercy of the smallpox virus. A vaccine existed, but it was fragile and deteriorated within three days of being taken out of a refrigerator. Small outbreaks in countries such as Britain could be contained; only eight people died in the mini-outbreak in Edinburgh in 1942. But in poorer countries the virus continued to affect an estimated fifty million people a year. What was needed was a vaccine that could be transported without the help of a refrigerator. The Americans had developed a method of freeze-drying the vaccine but hadn't found a way of stabilizing the lymph containing cowpox. Collier added a key component, peptone, to the process. This protected the virus. His breakthrough meant that, for the first time, teams of vaccinators were not dependent on a 'cold chain' to protect the vaccine. Health workers could carry the freeze-dried vaccine for weeks, even months, in their back-packs at temperatures of up to 45°C.

In 1967 the United Nations Children's Fund and World Health Organization decided to harness the potential of Collier's mass-produced, freeze-dried vaccine and stamp out smallpox for good. By the mid-1970s as many as 150,000 health workers, many of whom were volunteers, were tasked with finding infected villages. Many of the vaccinators sacrificed careers and even their lives to paddle out to rainforest communities in South America or mountain villages in Africa to persuade sometimes hostile people to accept the vaccination. By 1980 the seemingly impossible happened: the World Health Organization announced that smallpox had been eradicated. A disease that had ravaged the world for 3500 years was gone. The last known case of the disease occurring naturally was in Somalia in 1977. The victim was a hospital cook called Ali Maalin. Twenty-five years after his recovery, an international smallpox meeting was hosted at Barts and the Royal London Hospital to mark the anniversary of smallpox's eradication. Collier gave the keynote talk but didn't mention his own astonishing contribution. Nor did he mention his role in eradicating the disease in the chapter he wrote on smallpox for the textbook Human Virology which he co-authored with John Oxford in 1990 (and whose fourth edition they produced in 2010). That was typical of Collier: reserved and modest, caring nothing for honours or recognition.

In 1955 Collier was appointed head of a new department of virology at the Lister Institute laboratories in Chelsea, with the immediate objective of isolating the agent causing trachoma, a blinding disease affecting 400 million people worldwide. The Chinese had already isolated a psittacosis-like bacterium from the eyes of trachoma patients (until then, the disease was thought to be caused by a virus). Collier's trachoma research unit in Chelsea and the Gambia confirmed this work by infecting blind human volunteers with tiny doses of the sexually transmitted Chlamydia trachomatis. Collier found that Chlamydia did indeed cause the disease. This later opened the door to new chemotherapy treatments and Collier was proud to be awarded the Chibret gold medal of the Ligue contre le Trachome in 1959, in honour of this work.

Between 1968 and 1974 Collier was deputy director of the Lister Institute before becoming director of the Vaccines and Sera Laboratories at Elstree from 1974 until their closure in 1978. He was professor of virology at the University of London from 1966 to 1988 and a consultant pathologist at the Royal London Hospital from 1987.

Collier enjoyed languages, especially Greek. In later years much of his time was spent writing and editing. He was a devoted editor of the eighth edition (1990) of the classic bacteriology textbook, Topley and Wilson's Principles of Bacteriology, Virology, and Immunology, and of the ninth edition (1997) of the book, now renamed Topley and Wilson's Microbiology and Microbial Infections. He also jointly edited, with John Oxford, Developments in Antiviral Chemotherapy (1980). He was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists in 1975 and of the Royal College of Physicians in 1980, and served as president of the pathology section of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1986 to 1988. He lived latterly with his wife, Adeline, at 8 Peto Place, Regent's Park, London, and died of aspiration pneumonia at University College Hospital, Camden, on 14 March 2011. He was survived by his wife, their son, David, having died in 2002.

Sources

  • Daily Telegraph (23 March 2011)
  • The Times (5 May 2011)
  • The Guardian (10 May 2011)
  • BMJ (18 May 2011)
  • WW (2011)
  • personal knowledge (2015)
  • private information (2015)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Wealth at Death

£825,514: probate, 6 Oct 2011, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

British Medical Journal
(1849–)