S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Watkins-Pitchford, Dr Wilfred (medical sciences, veterinary science)

Born: 4 June 1868, Tattenhall, Cheshire, England.
Died: 29 September 1952, Wolverhampton, Shropshire, England.

Wilfred Watkins-Pitchford, bacteriologist and pioneer of medical research in South Africa, was a son of Reverend J. Watkins-Pitchford and a younger brother of veterinarian Herbert Watkins-Pitchford*. He studied medicine at St Thomas's Hospital, London, qualifying as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) of England and a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians (LRCP) of London in 1891. After working for some time as house physician at St Thomas's Hospital he graduated as Bachelor of Medicine (MB) through the University of London in 1894 and, following a period as resident in other hospitals, was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS) in 1897. Though at that time his main interest appears to have been in surgery, he must already have been a competent bacteriologist for the government of Natal Colony (where his brother Herbert was principal veterinary surgeon) commissioned him to report on the bacteriological laboratories of England and continental Europe with a view to establishing its own bacteriological laboratory. However, he did not visit Natal at this time. In 1898 he went to Bombay (now Mumbai), India, as special medical officer to report on the value of disinfectants in the control of an outbreak of bubonic plague. In 1900-1901, during the Anglo-boer War (1899-1902), he came to South Africa as bacteriologist to No. 7 General Military Hospital in Escourt, Natal. Upon his return to England he obtained the Diploma in Public Health (DPH) at the University of Oxford in 1901 and the next year was awarded the degree Doctor of Medicine (MD) in State Medicine by the University of London. Later in 1902 he acted as consultant to the London County Council following an outbreak of smallpox, and to the Borough of Holborn (London), which requested his advice on the organisation of its Health Department.

In 1902 Watkins-Pitchford accepted an appointment as assistant bacteriologist under his brother Herbert, who was then government veterinary bacteriologist of Natal and director of the Allerton Laboratory in Pietermaritzburg. In addition to routine work for various government departments Wilfred assisted his brother in research on various human and stock diseases, including horsesickness, quarter evil, bubonic plague, bluetongue, and East Coast fever. Though Herbert published most of the work, Wilfred published Observations on the morbid anatomy of South African horse-sickness (Pietermaritzburg, 1904) and Nodular disease of the intestines in sheep (Pietermaritzburg, 1906, 8p). He devised an "isometer", an apparatus for estimating the percentage of arsenic in cattle dip, and introduced bacteriological testing of water and food, the precipitin test for human blood, and the preparation of bacterial vaccines. His post was upgraded to government pathologist and analyst in 1907. In 1905 he marrried Olive M. Nicholl, with whom he had a son and a daughter. During his stay in Natal he was a member of the Natal Medical Corps and served during the Zulu Rebellion of 1906.

Following the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 Watkins-Pitchford was transferred to Johannesburg in 1911 as government pathologist and bacteriologist for the Transvaal Province, serving also as honorary pathologist to the Johannesburg General Hospital. At this time he read a paper on "Environment and disease" before the pathology section of the South African Medical congress of 1910. The paper was published in the Transvaal Medical Journal (1910/1, Vol. 6) and was followed by another on "Scurvy" (Ibid, 1911/2, Vol. 7) in which he concluded that the cause of the disease remained unclear.

In Septermber 1913 Watkins-Pitchford was appointed as the first director of the newly establshed South African Institute for Medical Research. The institute was founded to conduct research into the prevention and control of human diseases, particularly those affecting workers in the mining industry. Its well-equipped building, completed in 1914, contained various laboratories, post-mortem theatres, a library, lecture rooms, and a pathology museum. During World War I (1914-1918) the institute focussed mainly on the needs of the South African Defence Force, supplying it with typhoid vaccine. It also provided a diagnostic service to the Johannesburg General Hospital and to pivate medical practitioners. In 1916 the Miners' Phthisis Medical Bureau was established in the same building, with Watkins-Pitchford serving as its chairman until his retirement in 1926. He wrote the Bureau's annual reports for the years 1916 to 1924. He was a quiet and unassuming man, but firm in his dealings with the staff and the institute soon established a worldwide reputation for the quality of its research. Under his directorship staff at the institute developed widely used pneumococcal vaccines (Drs S. Lister and D. Ordmann); elucidated the ecology of plague in South Africa (Dr H. Pirie); established the host of the bilharzia parasite (Dr J.G. Becker); determined the distribution in South Africa of bilharzia and various parasitic worm infections (Dr Annie Porter); started intensive research on silicosis (miners' phthisis); conducted surveys of the distribution of mosquitoes in South Africa as a first step towards the control of malaria; and studied the prevention and control of various other diseases.

Watkins-Pitchford himself took a special interest in silicosis among mine workers, a topic on which he published several papers, including "The gross characters of the silicotic lung" (Medical Journal of South Africa, 1915); "Miners' phthisis of the Rand" (Report of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science, 1915); On the nature of the doubly-refracting particles seen in microscopic sections of silicotic lungs... (with J. Moir*, South African Institute for Medical Research, 1916); "The diagnosis of silicosis" (Medical Journal of Australia, 1923); and "The silicosis of the South African gold mines..." (Journal of Industrial Hygiene, 1927). He was one of the first to note the prevalence of different forms of cancer in South Africa, and differences in this regard between people of African and European descent. During the influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed over 140 000 South Africans in just six weeks, he designed an anti-infection mask to protect medical and nursing staff. The mask was described in the Medical Journal of South Africa in 1919. Another innovation by him, described during the same year, was a new "batch inoculation injector", used to inject a large number of persons with accurately measured doses. He was a member of the Department of Health's Council of Public Health and served on several of its committees, playing an active role in formulating its policies and developing its health programmes. He was also chairman of the Committee on Tuberculosis of the Chamber of Mines.

In addition to editing the institute's publications Watkins-Pitchford acted as editor of the Medical Journal of South Africa during 1914-1918. He also contributed papers on a variety of medical topics, for example, "The industrial diseases of South Africa" (Medical Journal of South Africa, 1914) and An investigation into the significance of localized and more or less persistent r?les in the marginal areas of the lungs of apparantly healthy natives (with P. Allen, South African Institute for Medical Research, 1924). At the South African Medical Congress held in East London in September 1908 he was president of the Public Health Section and his presidential address was a review of "Hygiene in South Africa" (Transvaal Medical Journal, 1908/9, Vol. 4). At the next congress, held in Durban in 1909, he delivered a comprehensive paper on "Light, pigmentation and new growth: An essay on the genesis of cancer" (Ibid, 1908/9, Vol. 4. This paper was also published as a monograph (London, 1909, 100p). In it he argued that excessive light was the major cause of all forms of cancer.

When the Medical School was established at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1922 Watkins-Pitchford accepted a part-time appointment as honorary professor and head of the Department of Bacteriology and Pathology. In 1927, after ill health forced him to retire, the university conferred upon him an honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) degree. He became a member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in 1906. He joined the British Medical Association in 1899, serving as honorary secretary (1906) and chairman (1910) of the Pietermaritzburg division of the Natal branch, honorary secretary (1908) and president (1911) of the Natal branch, and president of the Witwatersrand branch (1917). From 1919 to 1922 he was president of the association's South African Committee, and in 1923 was elected joint vice-president of the association in England. After his return to England he was elected as a member of the central council of the association from 1928 to 1938. He settled at Bridgnorth, Shropshire, where he served on the council of the Shropshire Archaeological Society.

A South African colleague described Watkins-Pitchford as "a loveable man of charm, friendliness, and kindness, quietly doing very competently an important and lasting job" (Obituary, 1952, p. 998).

List of sources:
Appointment of Dr Watkins-Pitchford. Natal Agricultural Journal, 1903, Vol. 6, p. 132.

Burrows, E.H. A history of medicine in South Africa up to the end of the nineteenth century. Cape Town: Balkema, 1958.

Curson, H.H. South African medical pioneers in veterinary sience. South African Medical Journal, 1933, Vol. 7(22), pp. 745-751.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 4, 1981.

Gear, J.H.S. Watkins-Pitchford - SA owes him a lasting debt of gratitude. Bacteria, 1981, No. 1, pp. 3 and 8.

Murray, B.K. Wits, the early years. A history of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and its precursors, 1896-1939. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1982.

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

Obituary: Wilfred Watkins-Pitchford. British Medical Journal, Vol. 2 of 1952, pp. 834-835 and 998.

Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository (NAB), Vol. NMC 34, List of medical practitioners... registered [in the Transvaal], as on 31 December 1914.

South African Association for the Advancement of Science. Report, 1905/6, 1910, 1915, 1918.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979.

Standard encyclopaedia of southern Africa (SESA). Cape Town: NASOU, 1970-1976.

Transvaal Medical Journal, 1908-1912, Vol. 4, 6 and 7.

University of the Witwatersrand. Honorary Graduates. http://www.wits.ac.za/alumni/alumnirecognition/3600/honorary_degrees.html

Compiled by: C. Plug