Obituary: Keith Vickerman, zoologist

Born: 21 March 1933. Died 28 June 2016, aged 83

Keith Vickerman
Keith Vickerman

Keith Vickerman rose from modest beginnings in the market town of Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, to become a leading world authority on sleeping sickness before being appointed the Regius Professor of Zoology at the University of Glasgow.

One of his last projects before retirement was to investigate a disease that was killing off Scotland’s most important fishery – that of the Norway lobster, better known as scampi. He went on to identify the parasite but left it for others to find a way of eliminating it.

Such was his passion for wildlife and the great outdoors that he was also a keen gardener and allotmenteer, which ultimately led to Vickerman addressing the Scottish Parliament in 2001 on the importance of biodiversity and keeping “green corridors” running through cities as part of a campaign to save local allotments in Glasgow from building developers – a campaign which proved successful thanks to the help of his wife Moira.

Born in 1930s Huddersfield, Keith Vickerman recalled: “Since I was a crawling baby, I have been fascinated by living things – animals and plants, their beauty and their enormous variety.”

He attended local schools before winning a place at the town’s King James’s Grammar School where, he recalled, “aged 12, my teacher read to us from Paul de Kruif’s The Microbe Hunters and I was utterly spellbound and now hooked.”

The following year, he received a brass microscope from his father, which became his “most cherished possession”. Surrounded by countryside, as a schoolboy, Vickerman wandered through the fields and woods, watched birds, collected plants, insects and other samples and specimens to study under his microscope.

In 1952 he went to University College London (UCL) to read zoology and in his final year specialised in parasitology; it was then under the microscope that he viewed, “for the first time [the] trypanosomes that cause sleeping sickness in Africa, swimming between the red blood cells in a drop of blood from an experimentally infected rat.”

He noted, “No parasite is more beautiful than the trypanosome, yet it causes fatal disease not only in humans but also in domestic animals,” and although the parasites were known to be transmitted by the tsetse fly, a blood-sucking insect that feeds on both humans and animals, “there seemed to be so much we did not know about trypanosomes that I decided I would like to do research on them if the opportunity arose”.

Graduating with First Class Honours, Vickerman was exempted from National Service and began his postgraduate studies at Exeter University, where, funded by the Agricultural Research Council, he researched the parasites of soil insects.

After a spell at Edinburgh University, where he gained access to an electron microscope, which enabled the tiniest organisms to be scrutinised in unprecedented detail, Vickerman became a lecturer at UCL and began pioneering research on trypanosomes.

With a Royal Society Tropical Research Fellowship, he moved to Uganda, and lived well during the last days of British colonial rule. Working at the East African Trypanosomiasis Research Institute, he discovered that the drugs used to treat sleeping sickness contained arsenic and thus could kill the patient before the parasite did. In addition, the parasites were developing a resistance to the drugs, which meant bigger doses were required until they effectively became useless. Another problem that particularly intrigued Vickerman was that it appeared to be impossible to vaccinate against trypanosomes.

He returned to London with frozen samples of trypanosome-infected blood from patients, cattle and game animals in order to conduct microscopic studies on how the parasite survived in its host vector, the tsetse fly, and in the blood of infected animals. He traced the activation and repression of the parasite’s single mitochondrion as it passed through both the insect and vertebrate hosts respectively, both in regard to the enzyme systems and the DNA of the kinetoplast.

After studying the parasite’s ultrastructure, he conducted further studies to analyse the surface coat of the parasites, effectively discovering a novel kind of biological variation that became the benchmark for the study of further host-parasite relationships in other micro-organisms, such as soil amoebae and malaria parasites. During this intense work, he discovered why it was impossible to vaccinate against sleeping sickness noting, “The parasite has a coat of protein, which it can repeatedly shed to replace it with a coat of a different kind, so that the patient has to produce antibodies against the new coat. This process can go on until the patient dies.”

His research opened up a new approach to vaccination against protozoal diseases and gained him worldwide renown.

Vickerman was in demand and in 1968 he moved to Glasgow University and was titular Professor of Zoology from 1974 until his appointment to the John Graham Kerr Chair of Zoology in 1979. In 1984, he received a letter from the Queen, one of a handful of professorships appointed by the Queen, inviting him to become the Regius chair of zoology; he served until 1988.

He became a Fellow the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1970, the Royal Society in 1984 and of the United Kingdom Academy of Medical Sciences in 1998. He was also the recipient, in 1996, of the acclaimed Linnean Medal.

At his retirement celebration, Glasgow University commissioned the Scottish composer Sally Beamish to create a piece of music that reflected his life’s work on the trypanosome behind sleeping sickness.

In his free time, he enjoyed classical music, in particular opera, and the outdoors.

Vickerman married Moira in 1961, a law undergraduate he had initially met at Exeter. After a spell in Germany, while he was at Edinburgh, the couple were reunited through a mutual friend and got engaged shortly after. They adopted a toddler, Louise, in 1973, who became the principal harpist for the Utah Symphony Orchestra. Vickerman died of pancreatic cancer and is survived by both.

Martin Childs