Obituary: Prof James Duguid CBE, Bacteriologist who revolutionised the understanding of penicillin

Born: 10 July, 1919, in Bo’ness. Died: 9 March, 2012, in Inverness, aged 92

James Duguid was an outstanding academic and bacteriologist whose most significant discovery went unacknowledged for more than a decade.

The young scientist was pursuing his studies at Edinburgh University when he found the key to how penicillin works.

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His findings were published in the Edinburgh Medical Journal just after the Second World War but, because they did not reach a wider audience, he did not receive the credit he deserved. When an American research team published similar results internationally 11 years later, they took the credit even though they did acknowledge his work.

Duguid learned then that it was not enough to make a discovery but it was also necessary to publicise it and bring it to the notice of other workers who can confirm it and build upon it.

Published in 1946, it was followed by a host of other scientific research, including his groundbreaking finding when he was first to identify one of the most virulent mechanisms for transmitting the bacterial infections E.coli and salmonella.

He went on to hold the chair of bacteriology at both St Andrews and Dundee universities, become the latter’s dean of the faculty of medicine and an adviser to the Scottish home and health department before focusing, in retirement, on his concerns regarding overpopulation and migration.

The son of Major General David Duguid CB, MBE, and Mary Paris, he was born in Bo’ness but educated at Shirley House, Blackheath, London, and then Edinburgh Academy, where he was dux in science in 1936.

Later that year, he began his studies at University of Edinburgh, graduating MB ChB Hons in 1942 and BSc with first class honours the following year.

After a post as house surgeon at Larbert Hospital, he entered the bacteriology department of Edinburgh university on a Vans Dunlop scholarship and was appointed lecturer in 1944 and later reader. The subsequent years there, until 1962, were filled, he said, with absorbing research work and enjoyable science and medical teaching.

They included graduating MD in 1949 when his thesis, on transmission of respiratory tract pathogenic bacteria, earned him the gold medal; his discovery, in 1955, with Isabel Smith, Dempster and Edmunds, of structures he named bacterial fimbriae, which he identified as one of the primary mechanisms for virulence of E.coli and other bacteria, and his subsequent research in this and related fields.

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Soon after publishing his findings on fimbriae, an American published similar work but called the structures pili. There was some controversy over what they should be named and, despite not having scientific priority, they remain pili in the United States, a term used interchangeably with fimbriae in the textbooks – something described as “unforgivable” by one of Duguid’s colleagues, Prof J G Collee CBE, who paid tribute to Duguid’s authority and wealth of knowledge.

“His work on penicillin is not widely known and he did not get the credit for some of his original [and correct] theories on the mode of action of the first, and still the best, of our antibiotics. He generated many new approaches to the airborne spread of infection and he was responsible for some of our important knowledge of antisepsis and disinfection,” said Collee.

In 1963, Duguid became professor of bacteriology at St Andrews University, where he stayed for four years until moving to Dundee University, initially as professor of bacteriology and director of post-graduate medical education before becoming dean of the faculty of medicine in 1971 and later serving as a member of the university court. During his time there, he laid the groundwork for the Dundee school of biological sciences and developed the independent management of Dundee dental school by senior dental staff.

He was consultant adviser in microbiology to the Scottish home and health department for almost 20 years, during which time he was also a member of the advisory committee on medical research and eastern region and Tayside health boards as well as adviser to the Scottish health service council’s committee on laboratory services.

In addition, he served on the Scottish health service planning council, chaired numerous committees, including those on epidemiology and microbiology, was on the General Medical Council and a member of the independent advisory group on Gruinard Island – formerly contaminated during anthrax experiments – which reported to the Ministry of Defence.

He was also an honorary member of the Pathological Society of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of the Society for General Microbiology.

With a plethora of scientific papers to his name, he was also a skilled editor – once masterfully cutting down a young Collee’s 20,000-word paper to a relatively crisp 4,000 words. He co-edited the Journal of Pathology and Bacteriology and of microbiology plus three editions of the textbook Medical Microbiology and edited Practical Medical Microbiology.

He was still producing articles in 1995 – notably on listeria, for the Royal College of GPs’ Scottish magazine, during the Lanarkshire Blue outbreak – chalking up a contribution to medical science spanning more than half a century.

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Honoured with the CBE in 1979, he was a man of unfailingly high standards, absolute integrity and persistence, who was on a constant quest for the truth. And, in his teaching as well as his research, he was able to engender enthusiasm and inquiry along with commitment and detailed analysis.

His desk, like his mind, was always uncluttered. He concentrated on the job in hand and had sometimes been known to accompany his wife to the theatre, only to leave at the interval to check on an experiment running in the lab.

“He combined self-confidence in argument with the knowledge that he had done the necessary research beforehand,” said Collee. “And his strange combination of assurance and humility was regularly in evidence.”

A committed atheist, he debated vigorously in support of Darwin’s theory of evolution and Malthus’ theories of population growth. In retirement, he joined the newly-formed Optimum Population Trust UK in the early 1990s, attending its conferences and corresponding widely with other members and overseas experts. He was also a member of the advisory council of Migration Watch.

Away from work, his recreational interests were his grandchildren and gardening.

Predeceased by his wife Isobel and daughter Lesley, he is survived by their children Nigel, Catherine, and Hazel, 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.