Crucial work to keep lethal strain in check
PROFESSOR Bedson and his small team were involved in work classifying pox viruses of which smallpox is one of many.
Although he had travelled to the frontline to see eradication work being carried, his forte was researching if and how smallpox may evolve or mutate at some point after the world was declared free of the wretched virus.
“The worry was that these viruses, they’re out in central Africa and places like that, may cause infections in humans,” says Hugh Pennington.
“It is very important to be able to tell whether they are smallpox or not, whether smallpox has gone away or hidden somewhere, whether these viruses are going to mutate into viruses like smallpox.
“It’s absolutely crucial to classify them, basically do detailed fingerprints on them, but the methods being used at time, were by today’s standards hopelessly crude.
The complicated procedure involved protein analysis using polyacrylamide gels and working with the viruses and membranes of eggs at different temperatures – it was well before the days of the DNA typing now available.
And it was work which Prof Pennington thinks was largely done by then Phd student Linda Harper.
“It wasn’t Henry Bedson that was actually doing the pipetting and harvesting, he might have drifted into the lab from time to time but he was the head man, you know, he was sitting in his office, faculty meetings and all that kind of stuff.
“I’m only making assumptions, but that would be what would be expected.
“I didn’t even recall him being all that active in the lab in 1969.”
The complexity of the work, growing virus in a petri dish in the presence of radioactive sulphur and using special slicing techniques was “really fiddly”.
“Linda (Harper) was doing all that kind of stuff, because it would take you several months to work yourself up to doing it properly and getting the results that were suitable.
“But it all needed attention to detail and that was what Henry was good at.
“I know the World Health Organisation though very highly of the work and it needed to be to done just to sort of wrap up smallpox completely so we didn’t worry about these viruses coming out of monkeys in the jungle or rats.
“We had to be absolutely certain so that we could basically, not rest content, but at least know exactly where we stood with these wild viruses, non-human viruses that did occasionally infect people.”