Inventor of vaccine that eliminated serious cattle disease dies

Walter Plowright, the British veterinarian often called one of the "heroes of the 20th century" because of the massive increase in meat and dairy products resulting from his invention of a vaccine that has almost totally eliminated the cattle disease rinderpest, died recently in London. He was 86.

Most Americans have probably never heard of rinderpest, a virus in the same family as measles that causes one of the most lethal diseases in cattle.

Although it never established a foothold in the Americas and was eliminated from Europe early in the 20th century, rinderpest devastated stocks across the world.

When the disease entered Africa in 1889, the ensuing pandemic saw the deaths of millions of cattle and buffalo, and the starvation of many thousands of people who had depended on those animals for food, or for pulling a plough or a cart.

Some consider the most catastrophic natural disaster ever to affect that continent.

Plowright's work on eradicating rinderpest has been compared to the development of the smallpox vaccine.

With his assistant, R.D. Ferris, he carried out much of his research at the East African Veterinary Research Organization in Kenya between 1956 and 1971. Together they created the first truly effective vaccine against the disease.

Though Plowright made his breakthrough in 1960, the vaccine was not used for long enough, and the disease reappeared.

It was only after the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization formed a global eradication program in 1994 that veterinarians and farmers were trained to recognize and control it. The last major outbreak was in Kenya in 2001, and a small pocket of recurring cases on the borders of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya now appears to have been cleared.

An announcement is expected this year that the disease has been eradicated.

The impact of Plowright's vaccine on the world's food supply has been huge, adding tens of millions of tons of meat and hundreds of millions of liters of milk to the food supply in the developing world.

Plowright, who died on Feb. 20, also made significant contributions to the study of African swine fever, and pox and herpes viruses in animals.