THE first Nobel prize to be awarded to a British subject was given to Ronald Ross in 1902. He received the award for showing how the mosquito was the vector for the transmission of malaria. Years of careful observation of the phases of the parasite in mosquito and bird or man were rewarded with a clear account of a complex process. He was not without flaws; even his grandson HS Langstaff recognised how contentious and antagonistic he could be. An Italian team led by GB Grassi had also done similar work on malaria and Ross later regretted his jealous quarrel with him. This also caused a dispute with his mentor Patrick Manson.
Ronald's father came from a line of Indian army officers. In India Ronald became fluent in Hindi then, aged eight, he was sent to stay with relatives in southern England. He could easily have been a writer, musician or sportsman but his father wished him to become a doctor. Studies at St Bartholomew's Medical school gave no hint of a brilliant scientific future; instead his interest was in the rich cultural life in London. He obtained membership of the Royal College of Surgeons and so, when he failed his first attempt at the apothecaries examination, he went to sea as a ship's surgeon. This gave him time to write and in 1883 he published a verse drama, just the first of his literary output.
A second attempt at the LSA enabled him to enter the Indian Medical Service (IMS). Posts took him to Chenai (Madras), Vizianagram, Moulmein, Burma and the Andaman Islands where he continued to enjoy a fairly leisurely life.
His medical career became more focussed in 1888 when he took the Diploma in Public Health and the following year studied bacteriology at Barts with EE Klein. In his first medical paper he challenged (wrongly) the observations of haematazoon by Charles Laveran in France. Fortunately Patrick Manson, whose work in China led him to suspect metazoonosis in malaria, brought his experience in a fatherly way to Ronald, who later reminisced: "Manson demonstrated other forms of the organism to me in a patient lying at Charing Cross Hospital, and also took me, on several occasions, with great kindness, to the Seaman's Hospital".
Back in India, progress in his research halted as he was helpless to prevent the IMS posting him to parts of India where there was little opportunity to study malaria. During an epidemic of cholera he was sent to Bangalore to impose sanitary conditions. His own health suffered; not only did he contract malaria, which he treated successfully with quinine, but also cholera. Nevertheless, he remained steadfast in his quest to solve the riddle of malaria. At last near Ootacamund, Ross bred brown and dappled-winged mosquitoes, let them take blood from malarial patients and observed black cells growing in the insect's stomach wall. This was the first significant success and his friend John Masefield, the poet laureate, celebrated it in verse.
As Ross' research in India progressed he corresponded with Manson in Britain who championed his protegée and stressed the importance of his work. As a result he was given a laboratory in Calcutta where, although he found no suitable human subjects to study, he was able to use birds. He located the parasite in the salivary glands of the insect. The vital, last step of the cycle showed that the bite from the infected mosquito spread the disease to an uninfected bird. Ross had designed a portable microscope and by the time the malaria question was answered he wrote that "the screws of my microscope were rusted with sweat from my forehead and hands and its last remaining eyepiece was cracked". Manson relayed the triumph in a lecture on 'The mosquito and the malaria parasite' at a BMA meeting in Edinburgh in 1898.
In 1899 Ross left the Indian Medical Service and accepted a post as lecturer in the new Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. The Royal Society honoured him with FRS in 1901 and the following year he was elected Nobel laureate. The remainder of his career was spent writing, lecturing and advising at home and abroad.
A self- taught mathematician, he was able to apply statistics to epidemiology. He advised the Government on sanitary conditions in West Africa. He became editor of a new journal Science Progress in 1912. During the war he was Consultant in Malaria to the War Office. In 1918, KCMG was added to previous honours.
The Ross Institute had been founded in his life time; inadequately funded, it was incorporated into the London Hospital for Tropical Diseases, where he was professor. He died there in 1932 a year after the death of his wife, Rosa, whom he had married in 1889. His memoirs won the James Tait Memorial Prize of 1932.
- Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (WF Bynum)
- Ronald Ross: malariologist and polymath (E R Nye and M E Gibson) 1997 Macmillan
- The Great Malaria Problem and its Solution (Ross) Introduction by L J Bruce-Chwatt. The Keynes Press 1988
- Ronald Ross (Dobson) 1934 Student Christian Movement Press
Julia Merrick is a freelance writer and editor in Edinburgh