Talk 3: Winning and Losing the Fight Against Infectious Diseases

September 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

Talk given by Professor Christopher Dye, World Health Organisation, 16th September 2013

I queued for this one, down the steps of the Royal Society and out along Carlton Terrace, watching gentlemen on their way to gentlemen’s clubs like the Carlton and Whites. Smart area. The Royal Society is pretty nice. Turns out lots of people want to hear about infectious diseases. While we waited for the Professor, people chatted.

“What field are you in?”

“I was in chemical engineering but I’m retired now. And you?”

“I work on malaria.”

(Obviously, this wasn’t me.)

Professor Dye, younger than I had imagined, said he was going to give us “a personal view of infectious diseases.”  Apparently, Hollywood has much to answer for in terms of how we understand, or misunderstand, the nature of infection – we saw some pictures from Contagion, which I don’t think Prof Dye really enjoyed.

Here are some more things I learned.

1. We should all be frightened of pandemics – H1N1, Spanish Flu, etc. – but most deaths from infectious diseases (IDs) are not caused by pandemics. Fifteen million people a year die from IDs that just inhabit their everyday lives – diarrhoea, HIV, TB, malaria, meningitis. About 20 pathogens account for nearly all deaths from IDs.

2. In the UK, death rates from IDs fell for three centuries from the early 18th Century. This is largely due to better sanitation, more food, and better public health – things like vaccinations. However, in recent years, death rates have finally plateaued at around 13 per 100.  The downside is that there has been a steep rise in non-communicable diseases but, as Prof Dye pointed out, we do all have to die of something.

3. There is a link between infectious and non-infectious diseases. For example, being under-weight makes a person more susceptible to TB. In the West, we eat well so TB is not so prevalent. However, because we eat well, we develop diabetes. Having diabetes makes a person more susceptible to TB. Tricky.


Public health campaigns in the 1920s tried to halt the spread of TB.

3. In the developing world, not surprisingly the rates are the other way round.

4. The good news is that control of infectious diseases was one of the Millenium Goals and money spent on controlling IDs has risen from £5b in 1990 to £25b in 2010. However, since 2010 the rate of increase has declined. One reason for this is the growing importance of non communicable diseases.

5. Living in a city is both good and bad news. Since 2007, more of us have been living in urban areas  than rural ones and in cities of over 500,000, infections  really flourish. On the up side, infant mortality rates are substantially lower in cities than in the countryside, even for people living in slums.

6. It is probable that the 2003 SARS pandemic emerged from bats in South Asia. One in two people infected died. Researchers can follow its spread from five guests in the Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong to 206 other people. It is probable that SARS is no longer in the human population.

7. There is reason to worry about resistant to antibiotics – in the last 40 years, there have been no major developments. On the other hand, researchers don’t really understand why some diseases become resistant while others don’t. For example, syphilis has never become resistant to penicillin, so the case is not completely lost.



8. Only two diseases have ever been officially eradicated, small pox and rinderpest, a disease in cattle. The major emphasis now is on eradicating polio, which persists in rumbling on in Africa and parts of Asia. Professor Dye asked Paddy Power for odds on eradicating polio and was given 4-1.

9. There are 2.4 billion people in the world without access to piped drinking water, and 1 billion without access to sanitation. Given that we have known how to do both since the 1850s, when James Bazelgette reclaimed the banks of the Thames in order to construct sewers (John Betjeman said, “Our nation stands for democracy and proper drains”), why have those billions had to wait for so long for clean water?


Bazelgette inspects his work.

10. We don’t really understand the connection between infectious diseases and genes. Why do only 1 in 10 people infected by tuberculosis develop the disease?

Talk 2: The Brother Gardeners: Botony, Empire and the Birth of Obsession

September 3, 2013 § 2 Comments

Talk given by Andrea Wulf at the British Library,

21st August, 2013

I’m a little late writing this up due to holidays and being in a motor home traveling around the North of England. Apologies to anyone on the edge of their seats, waiting for news of botony, empire and the birth of obsession.

Held in the Conservation Centre at the British Library and attended largely by people who looked like Edwardian gardeners each with their own creeper-lined Hampstead oasis, The Brother Gardeners was about the discovery and introduction of many of the plants we (or whose of you who garden) have in your gardens. Here are some things I learned.

1. Britain is the only country with gardening celebritites. Apparently, we (the British) grieve for plants which get damaged or die.

2. In 1734, Peter Collinson, a London draper with an interest in botony, imported his first two boxes of seeds from John Bartram. Bartram, an American farmer, explorer and friend of Benjamin Franklin (they founded the American Philosophical Society together), traveled across the Eastern colonies collecting plants and seeds, which he then sent to Collinson, who ran a kind of mail order service for would-be gardeners. The business was a big hit with gentry, nurserymen, and natural scientists.


John Bartram at work. Obviously this is a made up picture. No known portrait of him exists.

3. America wasn’t the only source of new plants. Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander sailed on Cook’s Endeavour, collecting plants from Tahti, New Zealand and, of course, Australia. Indeed, Botony Bay was so called because of the huge number of plants they discovered there. For a while, they were a bit like rock stars due to their plant collecting success.

4. In the early 18th Century and before, gardens tended to be based on geometry – straight lines and box hedges. The plants that came from Bartram and others encouraged gardeners to experiment with less formal designs. They loosened the gardeners’ grip on nature. The trees he and Collinson introduced helped change the autumnal landscape in this country, adding red to the native yellow foliage.

5. All these gardeners didn’t necessarily know what to do with the strange plants and seeds they were receiving in their boxes. There was no Gardeners’ Question Time in the 18th Century. Thank goodness then for Philip Miller, Head of the Chelsea Physic Garden, who wrote The Gardeners’ Dictionary, the first manual for practical gardening based on experiment and observation rather than folk law and superstition. It was professional knowledge for the amateur.

6. For a while, all these new plants had different names depending on where in world you were, which made ordering tricky. Then along comes Swedish botonist, Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus sounds like quite the character. He made up extra exciting adventures and routes he’d traveled, insisted on wearing the traditional dress of the Sami people of Lapland and named weeds after people he didn’t like. More importantly, he introduced a classification system, based on the reproductive nature of each plant. This sexual system shocked British gardeners, who thought it too smutty, but it did eventually become the universal system for naming plants.


Linnaeus in traditional dress, holding the twinflower that became his personal emblem (I think I need an emblem).

All you good folk who garden will notice that I haven’t actually mentioned any plants. For that kind of detail you will need to read Andrea’s book for yourself. She seemed clever and funny so I imagine her book is worth a look. In the meantime, here is a picture of a relevant plant.


John Bartram first discovered specimens of the Bartram oak, Quercus x heterophylla, a rare but naturally occurring hyprid of red and willow oak on a nearby estate, The Woodlands, upriver from Bartram’s own garden in Philadelphia.



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