John Beale

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 19 January 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:181

Virologist at the heart of pioneering vaccine development for half a century

Whether discussing blue sky research with Nobel laureates or the everyday practicalities of drug production at the Wellcome Research Laboratories, John Beale was at the heart of pioneering virology and vaccine development for half a century. The laboratories that he directed created new treatments and tests for polio, viral cancers, malaria, hepatitis B, and HIV/AIDS, and permanently changed the medical landscape.

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In an age when pharmaceutical companies are viewed with increasing distrust, and, in some quarters, outright hostility, the medical developments over which he presided serve to remind us of the contribution the industry has made to public health. Towards the end of his life, however, it was necessary for him to defend key developments such as the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine that his work had helped produce.

His interest in medicine may have been kindled by his childhood experience of looking after his fragile elder sister, Jeanne, who died in 1939 from kidney failure. He began studying medicine at Guy's in 1940.

In 1949 he joined the Public Health Laboratory Service as a virologist. Then, after a two year stint as a research fellow at the Virology Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, he became the head of virology at Glaxo Laboratories in 1957. In this 11 year post his career went into overdrive.

Working with Jonas Salk he took the American's newly developed polio vaccine and transformed it into something that could be made in industrial quantities, laying the groundwork for efforts to eradicate the disease. Other leading polio vaccine experts such as Stanley Plotkin have said that the importance of Beale's role was often underestimated.

In 1969, when Glaxo switched its research funding from vaccines to more profitable pharmaceuticals, Beale joined the prestigious Wellcome Laboratories as scientific director. His scientific expertise and ability as a team player led to a remarkable 20 year period of advances in virology, parasitology, and veterinary science.

Key to his success was his championing of the emerging sciences of molecular biology and immunology. He was quick to recognise the enormous potential of gene manipulation at a time when some senior figures in the pharmaceutical industry viewed the technology less enthusiastically. He promptly recruited rising stars in the field, such as George Cross (now at Rockefeller University), in order to establish a new department of molecular biology.

On a practical level his scientists began to manufacture human interferons through cultured mammalian cells in huge quantities. This paved the way for the production of other treatments, including erythropoietin.

But more than anything, the early 1970s was an era of new optimism. Beale's laboratories looked at the possibility of hormonal treatments to reverse ageing, interferons as major weapons in the fight against cancer, and the prospects of eradicating malaria, dental caries, and hepatitis B.

Some of the projects provided more important advances than others. Today we have an effective vaccine against hepatitis B, while immunisation against malaria remains elusive. However, important work on the cloning of malaria antigens took place, and brilliant scientists nurtured at Wellcome in that period have since gone on to occupy key academic positions around the world.

Beale's time at Wellcome also saw break-through treatments for viral infections. Acyclovir became the gold standard treatment for herpes and shingles, while zidovudine (AZT) became the first significant antiviral against HIV.

Early on in the AIDS pandemic, Wellcome came under fire from some quarters over the effectiveness, profit margins, and toxicity of AZT. However, it remains a key part of combination treatments in HIV today and, together with acyclovir, helped swell the coffers of the Wellcome Trust, which today with assets of £12bn, is one of the world's largest medical charities.

Occasionally Beale's professional activities bordered on the bizarre. At one stage as a consultant to the Swiss Government he provided advice on how to look after cattle underground in the event of a nuclear war.

Not all of his creations had the desired effects. One novel vaccine he developed was supposed to provide Australian farmers with an alternative to sheep shearing. However, it caused animals to lose so much wool that they died from sunburn.

And not all of his advice was heeded. After his retirement in 1989 he argued strongly from his Sissinghurst home in Kent, where his father had farmed, that ministers should vaccinate the nation's herds rather than opt for mass culling and burning in order to combat the re-emergence of foot and mouth disease. It is believed that Prince Charles sought his opinion on the crisis.

His love of nature and the outdoors never waned and Beale was a regular at Vita Sackville-West's garden parties at Sissinghurst Castle. The Bloomsbury Set writer had been a great admirer of Beale's father, Captain Oswald Beale, who rented the Sissinghurst Castle farm from the Sackville-Wests. Vita's husband, Harold Nicholson, admitted that one of his greatest regrets was that he knew nothing about science, and for this reason he admired Beale greatly.

Predeceased by his wife, Mary, he leaves two children.

Alan John Beale, virologist, vaccine specialist and former scientific director Wellcome Research Laboratories (b 1923; q Guy's Hospital London 1946; MD, FRCPath, FIB), d 9 December 2005.

[Michael Day]

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