Ronald Ross

13 May 1857
16 Sep 1932
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Sir Ronald Ross, KCB, FRS (13 May 1857 – 16 September 1932), was an Indian-born British medical doctor who received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1902 for his work on malaria, becoming the first British Nobel laureate, and the first born outside of Europe. His discovery of the malarial parasite in the gastrointestinal tract of mosquito led to the realisation that malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes, and laid the foundation for combating the disease. He was quite a polymath, writing a number of poems, published several novels, and composed songs. He was also an amateur artist and natural mathematician. He worked in the Indian Medical Service for 25 years. It was during his service that he made the groundbreaking medical discovery. After resigning from his service in India, he joined the faculty of Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, and continued as Professor and Chair of Tropical Medicine of the institute for 10 years. In 1926 he became Director-in-Chief of the Ross Institute and Hospital for Tropical Diseases, which was established in honour of his works. He remained there until his death.

Ronald Ross was born in Almora in present day Uttarakhand in India, the eldest of ten children of Sir Campbell Claye Grant Ross, General in the British Indian Army, and Matilda Charlotte Elderton. At age eight he was sent to England to live with his aunt and uncle on the Isle of Wight. He attended Primary schools at Ryde, and for secondary education he was sent to a boarding school at Springhill, near Southampton, in 1869. From his early childhood he developed passion for poetry, music, literature and mathematics. At fourteen years of age he won a prize for mathematics, a book titled Orbs of Heaven which sparked his interest in mathematics. At sixteen he secured first position in the Oxford and Cambridge local examination in drawing. Although he wanted to become a writer, his father arranged enrollment at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College in London, in 1874. Not fully committed, he spent most of his time composing music, and writing poems and plays. He left in 1880. In 1879 he had passed the examinations for the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and he worked as a ship’s surgeon on a transatlantic steamship while studying for the licenciate of the Society of Apothecaries. He qualified on second attempt in 1881, and after a four-month training at Army Medical School, he entered Indian Medical Service in 1881. Between June 1888 and May 1889 he took study leave to obtain the Diploma in Public Health from the Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Surgeons, and took a course in bacteriology under Professor E. E. Klein.

Ronald Ross embarked for India on 22 September 1881 on the troopship Jumma. Between 1881 and 1894 he was variously posted in Madras, Burma, Baluchistan (now in Pakistan), Andaman Islands, Bangalore, and Secunderabad. In 1883, he was posted as the Acting Garrison Surgeon at Bangalore during which he noticed the possibility of controlling mosquitoes by limiting their access to water. In March 1894 he had his home leave and went to London with his family. On 10 April 1894 he met Sir Patrick Manson for the first time. Manson who became Ross’s mentor, introduced him to the real problems in malaria research. Manson always had a firm belief that India was the best place for the study. Ross returned to India on P&O Ferries’ Ballaarat on 20 March 1895 and landed in Secunderabad on 24 April. Even before his luggage was cleared in the custom office, he went straight for Bombay Civil Hospital, looking for malarial patients and started making blood films.

cholera. Bangalore had no regular cases of malaria. He confided to Manson stating, “I am thrown out of employment and have ‘no work to do’.” But in April he had a chance to visit Sigur Ghat near the hill station of Ooty, where he noticed a mosquito on the wall in a peculiar posture, and for this he called it “dappled-winged” mosquito, not knowing the species. In May 1896, he was given a short leave that enabled him to visit a malaria-endemic region around Ooty. In spite of his daily quinine prophylaxis, he was down with severe malaria three days after his arrival. In June he was transferred to Secunderabad. After two years of research failure, in July 1897, he managed to culture 20 adult “brown” mosquitoes from collected larvae. He successfully infected the mosquitoes from a patient named Husein Khan for a price of 8 annas (one anna per blood-fed mosquito!). After blood-feeding, he dissected the mosquito and found an “almost perfectly circular” cell from the gut, which was certainly not of the mosquito. (This discovery was published in 18 December 1897 issue of British Medical Journal.) On 20 August he confirmed the presence of the malarial parasite inside the gut of mosquito, which he originally identified as “dappled-wings” (which turned out to be species of the genus Anopheles). The next day, on 21 August, he confirmed the growth of the parasite in the mosquito. In the evening he composed the following poem for his discovery (originally unfinished, sent to his wife on 22 August, and completed a few days later):

This day relenting God
Hath placed within my hand
A wondrous thing; and God
Be praised. At His command,
Seeking His secret deeds
With tears and toiling breath,
I find thy cunning seeds,
O million-murdering Death.
I know this little thing
A myriad men will save.
O Death, where is thy sting?
Thy victory, O Grave?

In September 1897, Ross was transferred to Bombay, from where he was subsequently sent to a malaria-free Kherwara in Rajputana (now Rajasthan). Frustrated of lack of work he threatened to resign from service as he felt that it was a death blow to his pursuit. It was only on the representation of Patrick Manson, that the government arranged for his continued service in Calcutta on a “special duty”. On 17 February 1898 he arrived in Calcutta (now Kolkata), to work in the Presidency General Hospital. He immediately carried out research in malaria and kala azar, for which he was assigned. He was given the use of Surgeon-Lieutenant-General Cunningham’s laboratory for his research. He had no success with malarial patients because they were always immediately given medication. He built a bungalow with a laboratory at Mahanad village, where he would stay from time to time to collect mosquitoes in and around the village. He employed Mahomed (or Muhammed) Bux, Purboona (who deserted him after the first payday), and Kishori Mohan Bandyopadhyay as laboratory assistants. As Calcutta was not a malarious place, Manson persuaded him to use birds, as being used by other scientists such as Vasily Danilewsky in Russia and William George MacCallum in America. Ross complied but with a complaint that he “did not need to be in India to study bird malaria”. By March he began to see results on bird parasites, very closely related to the human malarial parasites. Using more convenient model of birds, by July 1898 he established the importance of mosquitoes as intermediate hosts in avian malaria. On 4 July he discovered that the salivary gland was the storage sites of malarial parasites in the mosquito. By 8 July he was convinced that tha parasites are released from the salivary gland during biting. He later demonstrated the transmission of malarial parasite from mosquitoes (in this case Culex species) to healthy birds from an infected one, thus, establishing the complete life cycle of malarial parasite.

In September 1898 he went to southern Assam in (northeast India) to study an epidemic of kala azar. He was invited to work there by Dr Graham Col Ville Ramsay, the second Medical Officer of the Labac Tea Estate Hospital. (His microscope and medicals tools are still preserved, and his sketches of mosquitoes are still on display at the hospital.) However, he utterly failed as he believed that the kala azar parasite (Leishmania donovani, the very scientific name he later gave in 1903) was transmitted by a mosquito, which he refers to as Anopheles rossi. (It is now known that kala azar is transmitted by sandflies.)

A small memorial on the walls of SSKM Hospital commemorates Ross’ discovery. The memorial was unveiled by Ross himself, in the presence of Lord Lytton, on 7 January 1927.

In 1899, Ross resigned from Indian Medical Service and went to England to join the faculty of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine as lecturer. He continued to work on prevention of malaria in different parts of the world, including West Africa, the Suez Canal zone, Greece, Mauritius, Cyprus, and in the areas affected by the First World War. He also initiated organisations, which proved to be well established, for fighting malaria in India and Sri Lanka. He was appointed as Professor and Chair of Tropical Medicine of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in 1902, which he held up to 1912. In 1912 he was appointed Physician for Tropical Diseases at King’s College Hospital in London, and simultaneously hold the Chair of Tropical Sanitation in Liverpool. He remained in these posts until 1917 when he became (honorary) Consultant in Malariology in British War Office. Between 1918 ans 1926 he worked as Consultant in Malaria in the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance.

Ross developed mathematical models for the study of malaria epidemiology, which he initiated in his report on Mauritius in 1908. He elaborated the concept in his book The Prevention of malaria in 1911 and further elaborated in a more generalised form in scientific papers published by the Royal Society in 1915 and 1916. These papers represented a profound mathematical interest which was not confined to epidemiology, but led him to make material contributions to both pure and applied mathematics.

The Ross Institute and Hospital for Tropical Diseases was founded in 1926 and established at Bath House, a grand house with keeper’s lodge and large grounds adjacent to Tibbet’s Corner at Putney Heath. The hospital was opened by the then Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII. Ross assumed the post of Director-in-Chief until his death. The institute was later incorporated into the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in Keppel Street. Bath House was later demolished and mansion flats built on the property. In memory of its history and owner the block was named Ross Court. Within the grounds an older dwelling, Ross Cottage, remains.

Ronald Ross was awarded a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the life cycle of malarial parasite, although he considered his epidemiological mathematics to be a much more valuable contribution. He did not build his concept of malarial transmission in humans, but in birds, nor did he identify the exact species of mosquitoes (being not a zoologist, Ross simply described as “grey mosquito with dappled wings”). In 1897, an Italian physician and zoologist Giovanni Battista Grassi, along with his colleagues, had established the developmental stages of malaria parasites in anopheline mosquitoes; and they described the complete life cycles of P. falciparum, P. vivax and P. malariae the following year. When the 1902 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was considered, the Nobel Committee initially intended the prize to be shared between Ross and Grassi. Then Ross initiated a defamatory campaign accusing Grassi of deliberate fraud, calling him “a mountebank, a cheap crook, a parasite who survived on the ideas of others.” Grassi responded with equally strong polemic. The weight of favour ultimately fell on Ross, largely due to the influences of Robert Koch, the appointed “neutral arbitrator” in the committee; as reported, “Koch threw the full weight of his considerable authority in insisting that Grassi did not deserve the honor”. Ross was the first to show that malarial parasite was transmitted by the bite of infected mosquitoes, in his case the avian Plasmodium relictum, which is a harmless parasite. However, Grassi’s work was more directly relevant to human health as he demonstrated that human malarial parasites were transmitted only by female Anopheles. Indeed, it was Grassi who both correctly identified the mosquito species as Anopheles claviger and in 1898 established the complete life cycle of P. falciparum, the first human malarial parasite for which this had been done.

Ronald Ross was noted to be eccentric and egocentric, described as an “impulsive man”. His professional life appeared to be in constant feud with his students, colleagues and fellow scientists. His personal vendetta with G.B. Grassi became a legendary tale in science. He was openly envious of his mentor Patrick Manson’s affluence from private practices. This was largely been due to his own ineptitude to compete with other physicians. His Memories of Sir Patrick Manson (1930) was a direct attempt to belittle Manson’s influences on his works on malaria. He hardly had good ties with the administration of Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, constantly whining of being underpaid. He resigned twice, and was eventually discharged without any pension.

Ross was frequently embittered by lack of government support (what he called “administrative barbarism”) for scientists in medical research. In 1928 he advertised his papers for sale in Science Progress, with a statement that the money was for financial support of his wife and family. Lady Houston bought them for £2000, and offered them to the British Museum, which turned her down for various reasons. The papers are now preserved by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.

Ross married Rosa Bessie Bloxam in 1889. They had two daughters, Dorothy (1891–1947) and Sylvia (1893–1925), and two sons, Ronald Campbell (1895–1914) and Charles Claye (1901–1966). His wife died in 1931. Ronald and Dorothy pre-deceased him too: Ronald was killed at the Battle of Le Cateau on 26 August 1914. Ross died at the hospital of his namesake after a long illness and asthma attack. He was buried at the nearby Putney Vale Cemetery, next to his wife.

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