Original documents proving that a remarkable Scot was the first to identify terrifying Zika virus as long ago as 1947 have been found in a vault at the University of Glasgow.
The handwritten original research papers, which include hand-drawn graphs, annotated mosquito catch tables and slides depicting the forests in Uganda, where the virus was originally found, belonged to Professor Alexander Haddow – a key member of the investigative team who originally discovered the virus.
Haddow, a professor of Tropical Medicine at Glasgow who died in 1978 aged just 66, was a keen amateur archivist of traditional Scottish music, and left his study of the subject and the rest of his personal papers to the University.
Among the sheet music and sketches of Scottish art, archivists have found, written in thin red pen, almost as an afterthought in the margins of a scientific log book, the words “Zika virus” – which record first-ever catch of mosquitos carrying Zika virus, in Uganda two years after the end of World War Two.
The papers were re-discovered by senior Glasgow Uni archivist Moira Rankin, after watching coverage of the Zika epidemic spreading across south America.
The find has been hailed as one of the most exciting ever made in the university’s archives .
Ms Rankin said: “We always knew we had some of Alexander Haddow’s materials, but we didn’t realise the amount of Zika-related content that was in there.
“It’s been a particularly interesting and important find given the university’s current involvement in Zika virus research. This Zika collection find really brings to light how involved the University of Glasgow has been in Zika work from the beginning.”
Today, Zika has spread to much of South America and is expected to arrive in Europe by the summer.
In healthy people, it is usually a harmless infection.
In rare cases is it thought to cause Guillain-Barr syndrome, a muscle weakness caused when the immune system damages the body’s peripheral nervous system.
In unborn children, though, it leads to the devastating developmental problem, microcephaly.
Haddow studied Zoology as an undergraduate at Glasgow University, graduating in 1934.
He qualified as a doctor four years later and worked as a junior research fellow for three years before going to Africa as an entomologist.
His work took him to Uganda in the 1940s and 1950s, where he became known for the steel towers — “Haddow Towers” — that he built in the forests near Entebbe, in which he caught local mosquitoes as they flew at different heights at different times of the day.
Those catches allowed him to uncover their habits — what times they bit, where, and when.
All of it was public health data useful for combating the mosquitoes that spread disease, including the great scourge of the time in East Africa, Yellow Fever.
Among the meticulous data he recorded from these steel towers, there was a catch of Aedes Africanis, from which he extracted samples of Zika virus.
The red pen in the margin of his log book, where he recorded the find, isn’t particularly conspicuous, probably because it was one of several viruses he had found in the area and his group’s main research focus was on finding a cause and cure for yellow fever.
Haddow deposited his research records in the University of Glasgow archive in the final years of his life.
Ms Rankin said: “He realised the importance and wanted to make sure that they were preserved, so they came here and have been on the shelves since 1978.”
Ms Rankin began looking through Haddow’s archive after hearing news reports about the Zika outbreak in February.
She said: “They started talking about Alexander Haddow having been one of the pioneers of Zika research.
“That name rang a bell with me, I looked it up, and sure enough we did have his research papers and I started to look, it was Africa material and digging a little bit deeper Zika virus was mentioned.”
Immunologist Eleanor Tiplady is now carrying out a three month internship as part of her PhD in order to study the Haddow archives, said: “We have been amazed by the calibre and volume of material we have found in the Haddow archive.
“His work for the Yellow Fever Research Institute led him to study many viruses, including Zika.
“It’s been particularly interesting to read work on Zika, which he doesn’t view as a particular threat at that time.”
The University of Glasgow continues to undertake significant research into the Zika outbreak, including studying the virus, working on vaccines and examining the links between Zika and Guillain-Barre syndrome.
In a further twist, Professor Haddow’s grandson, Dr Andrew D. Haddow, is one of the leading scientists in America working on the Zika outbreak.
Basedd at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, Dr Haddow said recently that his grandfather’s bedtime stories of science, wild animals and witch doctors woke in him an interest in tropical diseases which led him and some close colleagues to begin warning about the Zika threat almost a decade ago.
- A free presentation, “Zika Virus: Present, Past & Future” will be held in the Sir Charles Wilson Building, Glasgow University, on June 15 at 6:30pm.