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Ronald Ross: Malariologist and Polymath: A Biography

From: Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Volume 72, Number 3, Fall 1998
pp. 562-564 | 10.1353/bhm.1998.0144

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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 72.3 (1998) 562-564

Book Review

Ronald Ross: Malariologist and Polymath -- A Biography

Edwin R. Nye and Mary E. Gibson. Ronald Ross: Malariologist and Polymath -- A Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. xii + 316 pp. Ill. $59.95.

Ronald Ross (1857-1932) made life difficult for his biographers. His autobiography, the Memoirs of 1923, is a long (547 pages) and powerful account of his trials and tribulations. Its subtitle --"with a full Account of the Great Malaria Problem and its Solution"--speaks volumes about his assessment of his own worth. Like many egocentrics, he saved virtually everything about himself: correspondence, telegrams, newspaper cuttings, drafts of published and unpublished material, and all manner of ephemera; he also retrieved a fair number of his own letters while preparing his memoirs. Altogether, there are some 30,000 catalogued items in the two major Ross repositories, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), and the University of Glasgow. Small wonder that most biographers of Ross have relied heavily on their subject's autobiography.

It is one of the virtues of this new study that Nye and Gibson (Mary Gibson catalogued the LSHTM Ross collection) have returned to the archives. This allows them not only to correct a number of factual inaccuracies but also to present a fresh perspective on the life of this difficult and impulsive man. As their own subtitle suggests, they are fully appreciative of the breadth of Ross's talents. His 1902 Nobel Prize was awarded for his fundamental work on the role of the Anopheles mosquito in the transmission of the malaria parasite, and his elucidation of several of the steps in the life cycle of the bird plasmodium. In addition, he made important contributions to mathematical epidemiology, developed an ingenious new form of algebra, wrote tolerable poetry and bad novels, and composed a bit of music. Take away malaria, however, and Ross the polymath becomes Ross the eccentric amateur.

Ross certainly deserved his Nobel, but in a later generation he would almost certainly have had to share it: possibly with Patrick Manson, who from London guided Ross's Indian researches and originally suggested the mosquito hypothesis to him; probably with the Italian parasitologist G. B. Grassi, who did for the human plasmodium cycle what Ross did experimentally with birds; and maybe even with William George MacCallum, who the summer after he graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School first appreciated the significance of exflagellation in the cycle. (Charles Laveran, the discoverer of the plasmodium in 1880, was belatedly given the prize in 1907.) Ross subsequently quarreled with Manson, and his priority dispute with Grassi is legendary for the vitriol dished out by both men.

Manson and Grassi were by no means the only men with whom Ross fell out, nor were his relationships with the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine easy. He complained constantly -- about not getting a chair early enough, not having easy access to patients with "tropical" diseases, not being paid enough, and, after his ties with the school were finally severed in 1917, not being granted a pension. He fretted constantly about money and could appear grasping when negotiating terms for the various international consultancies he obtained. He resented Manson's lucrative private practice, though Ross lacked the bedside manner and general clinical knowledge to ever be very successful in the medical marketplace. At the same time, he could be passionate in support of men, such as Waldemar Haffkine and (Sir) David Bruce, whom he believed to have been badly treated by bureaucrats. He held that medical scientists were undervalued and underpaid in British society, and though he would have placed himself at the top of the list, he sincerely thought that he was working for the collectivity in his efforts to extract more money from the state, the general public, and philanthropists to support and reward medical research.

Nye and Gibson eschew any elaborate character analysis of Ross, but their careful biography reveals much about both the positive and the negative features of this complex figure. Their book hardly replaces the Memoirs as an essential source, but it is easily the best biography we...

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