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Thomas Henry Flewett was born on 29 June 1922 in India, where his father was a member of the Indian Civil Service. He attended Campbell College, Belfast, followed by medical education at Queen's University, Belfast, where he graduated with honours in 1945. He was a founder member (and subsequently fellow) of the Royal College of Pathologists and was elected (by distinction) a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1978.
Diarrhoeal diseases, principally caused by viruses, are among the commoner causes of death in infants in tropical countries. Tom Flewett, who died on 12 December 2006, was the first to name one of the most frequent causes, rotaviruses, during the course of his seminal research into the causes of gastroenteritis.
In 1956 Tom was appointed consultant virologist to East Birmingham Hospital, where he established, and became director of, one of the first regional virus laboratories in England, serving a population of more than five million. The proximity of the laboratory to the regional infectious diseases unit enabled him to provide confirmation of the clinical diagnosis ranging from poliomyelitis and childhood diarrhoea to smallpox and AIDS. He was active in the medical administration of East Birmingham Hospital and was instrumental in establishing the regional immunology laboratory in the hospital.
Tom Flewett's professional interest was in viruses, the diseases they cause, and the techniques used to diagnose virus infections. This began with membership of the scientific staff of the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill, where he spent three years between 1948 and 1951 trying to isolate common cold viruses and exploring the effect of influenza viruses on cells in culture. This led to his first use of electron microscopy, in which he became a leading authority. In 1951 he moved as lecturer in bacteriology to Leeds University, where he was involved in the 1953 smallpox outbreak.
At East Birmingham Hospital Tom's interests developed to cover further aspects of influenza, Coxsackie A and B viruses, major and minor variants of smallpox virus, and hepatitis B. He was the first to describe “hand, foot and mouth” disease as a clinical entity, but the work which gave him an international reputation began in the early 1970s with the discovery of viruses causing diarrhoea, particularly in infants and young children. Norwalk virus had been discovered by Albert Kapikian using immune electron microscopy, and Ruth Bishop and colleagues had seen different virus-like particles in gut biopsies by thin section electron microscopy. This was too cumbersome for routine use, and Tom soon showed that these viruses could be seen directly in stool extracts. The virus particles had a wheel-shaped appearance, and it was Tom who gave them the name “rotavirus,” by which they have been known since.
Tom Flewett did much more collaborative work on rotaviruses with others to establish the varieties of rotavirus which infect the young of virtually every species of animal. He also identified two new species of adenoviruses (later recognised to be types 40 and 41), as well as confirming the presence of caliciviruses, astroviruses, and faecal coronaviruses.
Tom Flewett's work on rotaviruses brought him international fame both as a virologist and an electron microscopist. He was a World Health Organization consultant in many countries in which childhood diarrhoea was, and is, a major problem. He was chairman of the WHO Steering Committee on Viral Diarrhoeal Diseases, 1990-3, and a member until 1996. His laboratory in Birmingham was a WHO Reference and Research Centre for Rotavirus Infections from 1980 until his retirement in 1987. He was in demand as a consultant, external examiner, visiting lecturer, and journal editor. He was a member of the board of the Public Health Laboratory Service from 1977 to 1983 and was chairman of the PHLS Committee on Electron Microscopy from 1977 to 1987. He published over 120 scientific papers on a variety of virological topics.
Tom's other great love was golf. At his best, he had a handicap of 2 and he remained competitive well into retirement, confirmed by the trophy boards at Moseley Golf Club.
Tom Flewett was a major force in the emergence of British diagnostic virology at the time when it led the world in routine diagnosis. His working life covered the time when virus diagnosis was new and exciting. His contribution to it by electron microscopy cannot be overemphasised. He showed what could be done by dedication, underpinned by sound technical knowledge, and made it fun.
Tom and his wife, June, were excellent hosts, providing hospitality to the many overseas scientists who visited, and often worked in, his laboratory. She predeceased him but two daughters survive them.