S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Watkins-Pitchford, Mr Herbert (veterinary science)

Born: 3 June 1865, Tolken Hall, Cheshire, England.
Died: 25 June 1951, Illovo, Natal, South Africa.
Mr Herbert Watkins-Pitchford

Herbert Watkins-Pitchford, son of Reverend J. Watkins-Pitchford and an older brother of the bacteriologist Wilfred Watkins-Pitchford*, qualified as a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (MRCVS) at the Royal Veterinary College, Camden Town, United Kingdom, in 1889. After practising near Sandhurst he was offered the post of Principle Veterinary Surgeon in the Colony of Natal vacated by S. Wiltshire* and assumed duty in June 1896. He was immediately confronted with the problem of rinderpest, which was rapidly spreading southwards from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and the Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana), and joined Arnold Theiler* at a field laboratory in the Marico district near the Botswana border. Together they developed a serum-virus method of immunisation which later proved to be the most effective measure to control and eradicate the disease. Publication of their results was preceeded by that of Robert Koch* who discovered immunisation with bile at about the same time, but the latter method produced erratic results and short-lived immunity. In 1897, when Rinderpest entered Natal, Watkins-Pitchford returned to Pietermaritzburg to organise a successful immunisation campaign by means of which the disease was eradicated by the end of 1899. He was also responsible for establishing the Allerton Laboratory near Pietermaritzburg in 1897 and faced severe outbreaks of glanders, anthrax and quarter evil. Allerton produced a much improved single dose vaccine against the latter disease, but when Watkins-Pitchford joined the British forces during the Anglo-Boer war these activities came to a standstill. After the siege of Ladysmith, in which he became involved, his health deteriorated to such an extent that he returned to England for six months to recover. On his return his disillusionment with and lack of support from the government of Natal caused him to relinquish his post of principle veterinary surgeon and to take up the post of government bacteriologist in 1901. In this capacity he could concentrate on research at Allerton on horsesickness, quarter evil, bubonic plague, bluetongue and the production of anti-snake venom serum.

His research on horsesickness, started in 1897, led to the publication of his First and second interim reports on Horse-Sickness, dated 22 May 1902 and 13 March 1903. The work was aimed at testing his hypothesis that the disease was caused by insects, and he found that horses protected from winged insects did not contract the disease. In 1903, with the help of farmers, he successfully tested the efficacy of a quarter evil vaccine. A report on this work, as well as his "Bacteriological report on the plague in Natal, 1902-3", were included in his annual report for 1903.

In addition to his work on stock diseases Watkins-Pitchford also published reports on other topics, for example, a review of "modern disinfectants", "A report on the use of copper salts in the treatment of water supplies", and "The characters of the Mark VI service bullet". A number of articles by him on veterinary matters, particularly specific stock diseases, appeared in the Natal Agricultural Journal, until this publication was discontinued in 1911. His most important contribution, however, was the leading role he played in controlling and eventually eradicating East Coast Fever, another killer disease of cattle which was introduced into South Africa during restocking programmes after the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). After C.P. Lounsbury* and Arnold Theiler* proved that the disease is transmitted by the brown tick, he instituted dipping programmes to control ticks in 1904, based on those already in use in Natal to control redwater. While others, including Theiler and Koch, attempted in vain to develop a vaccine he persisted in refining dipping procedures by studying the life cycle of the tick and developing the short-interval technique which was later adopted country-wide and led to the eventual eradication of the disease in 1955.

After the Natal Museum was established in 1903 Watkins-Pitchford served on its board of trustees. He hoped to become the director of veterinary research in the newly created Union of South Africa in 1910, but it was not to be. When Arnold Theiler was appointed in this position in 1911 he was embittered and declined the position of assistant director. In 1912 he resigned from government service and rejoined the British Army. After a distinguished military career in World War I (1914-1918) he was honoured as a Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG, 1918) and appointed commander of the Army Veterinary School at Aldershot (1918-1922). After his retirement he returned to Natal, settling at St Winifred's on the South Coast, and remained in the province until his death in 1951. Shortly before his death he wrote In God's good time, a South African saga (Pietermaritzburg, 1949), a book of fiction set against the background of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). He was married to May Wilson, with whom he had three sons and a daughter.

List of sources:
Gutsche, Thelma. There was a man. Cape Town: Howard Timmins, 1979.

Mares, R.G. A faraway look: Herbert Watkins-Pitchford and rinderpest, 1896-1912. Veterinary History, 1990, Vol. 6, pp. 89-110.

Mares, R.G. A closer look. Herbert Watkins-Pitchford, CMG, FRCVS, FRSE. A paradoxical veterinary surgeon: a reappraisal of his work in Natal on rinderpest. Historia Medicinae Veterinariae, 1995, Vol. 20, pp. 81-112.

Natal [Colony]. Report of the Government Bacteriologist..., 1902, 1903, 1904/5.

Natal Agricultural Journal, 1899-1911, Vol. 2, 5, 8, 10-15.

Natal almanac, directory, and yearly register, 1909, p. 55, Natal Museum: Board of Trustees.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Posthumus, P.J. Past veterinarians in South Africa, 10th ed., Vol .2, [1990].

Rainey, J.W. The late lt.-col. Watkins-Pitchford. Tribute to a great veterinarian. The Veterinary Record, 1945, Vol. 57, p. 56.

Watkins-Pitchford, H. First and second interim report on Horse-Sickness, 1903. (KwaZulu-Natal Archive Depository, Pietermaritzburg, Vol. NCP 8/2/3).

Who was who, Vol. 5, 2nd ed. London: Adam & Black, 1964.

Compiled by: D.W. Verwoerd