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In his challenging and erudite article on the risk of animal tuberculosis to human health (JRSM October 2006),1 Peter Davies states that this risk was not debated by the Government until 1929. In fact, the British Government showed great interest and took decisive action as early as 1901.
In that year, Robert Koch astounded his audience at the British Congress on Tuberculosis by claiming that bovine tuberculosis was of no danger to the human population. A vociferous debate ensued and several distinguished veterinary surgeons attending the congress, with the support of Lord Lister, urged the Government to have the issue investigated. The Royal Commission on Tuberculosis was rapidly convened and the Commissioners employed some eminent workers, including Louis Cobbett, Arthur Stanley Griffith, and his brother Fred, more famous for describing transmission of inheritable characteristics from one bacterium to another, thereby paving the way for the discovery of DNA. These workers embarked on an intensive and extensive ten-year project and produced a series of reports, with the final one published in 1911 concluding that ‘Man must therefore be added to the list of animals notably susceptible to bovine tubercle bacilli.’2,3 These workers also developed the test-and-slaughter control method for bovine tuberculosis, but this was not systematically deployed until after the Second World War. This Royal Commission was one of the first examples of state-sponsored medical research and was the precursor of the Tuberculosis Research Council, which in turn was the forerunner of the British Medical Research Council.
Tragically, Fred Griffith was killed in an air-raid in London in the Second World War. Arthur Stanley Griffith devoted 37 years of his life to tuberculosis bacteriology and developed many techniques that are, with only minor modifications, used throughout the world today.
Competing interests None declared.