Blog-Post part of a series by Eleanor Tiplady, Immunology PhD Student and Intern on the Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Professional Internships for PhD Students (PIPS) scheme:
The Archives hold a collection of materials belonging to the medical entomologist Alexander J Haddow, who was an alumnus and professor at the University of Glasgow. The majority of his research career was spent studying insect-borne diseases, particularly viruses, in Entebbe, Uganda at what is now known as the Uganda Virus Research Institute. Haddow was mainly known during his lifetime for his studies of yellow fever, but his research team also discovered several previously unknown viruses including the Zika virus. A previous post has given a brief overview of his career and the materials held by the Archives.
Haddow’s research mainly focused on the behaviour of mosquitoes in and near the forests of East Africa, some of which are known to transmit serious diseases such as yellow fever and dengue. One of the main methods he used to study these insects was known as the 24-hour catch, where all the biting mosquitoes in a particular location would be caught and catalogued over a 24-hour period. Many of these catches were carried out on platforms high in the trees, or on a specially constructed tower with six levels extending far above the forest canopy that allowed teams to gather mosquitoes active at different heights in the forest. As many of the records show, the “bait” for these catches was normally local boys employed by the institute, who were small and light enough to reach the catching platforms.
Once the mosquitoes were caught, they would be taken back to the lab and identified using microscopes. They might also be ground up in saline solution and injected into mice, to determine whether they carried any viruses known or unknown. Once he had enough data, Haddow could correlate the number of mosquitoes biting at different levels to factors like light level and time. In this way, he could build up a very detailed picture of the habits of different species of mosquitoes – particularly useful for species known to transmit deadly diseases. Haddow’s work was innovative: he pioneered the use of experimental huts to study mosquito behaviour in proximity to humans, as well as the 24-hour catch method. Both of these are still used in mosquito research today.
From Haddow’s results and the annual reports held in the archives, it is possible to gain an overview of the research priorities and aims of the Institute while he worked there. Haddow’s incredibly detailed studies of insect behaviour were just one piece of the puzzle, which also included colleagues studying the spread of diseases among forest animals, particularly primates, and tracking human cases by taking blood samples at local clinics. This allowed the researchers to begin to build up a picture of the entire ecology of yellow fever and other diseases.
From these materials, it becomes clear that the Zika virus was not considered to be a research priority at the Institute: one of the only references to the virus in Haddow’s handwriting is a note in the margin of one of his results tables, indicating the first batch of mosquitoes the virus was ever isolated from. This is not surprising, as the virus was never known to cause serious disease or to spread rapidly.
One message that is illustrated clearly by the story of the Zika virus is that scientific work does not always have any obvious importance at the time it is carried out – It may be decades until new significance for a piece of work is found, and this is one of the reasons we continue to research the unknown.
Find out more about the collection on our Alexander Haddow and Zika Virus collections page.
You can also find out more by coming along to our free Glasgow Science Festival event on Wednesday 15th June: Zika Virus: Present, Past and Future to join in on a panel discussion about the research going on at the University of Glasgow.
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