Ronald Ross

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Ronald Ross


British Physician, Parasitologist and Epidemiologist

Ronald Ross was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1902 for elucidating the role of the Anopheles mosquito in the transmission of malaria. By explaining the complex life history of the malarial parasite, he made it possible to understand aspects of the problems of malarial fevers that had confounded physicians and scientists for hundreds of years. Millions of people throughout the world suffered from malaria during Ross's time and many areas were virtually uninhabitable because of malarial fevers. Moreover, his work made it possible for scientists to discover the role of insect vectors in the transmission of many other diseases.

Ross, the son of a military officer, was born in Nepal. In 1865 he was sent to England to attend school. Although Ross was primarily interested in poetry, art, and music, his father insisted that he study medicine. In 1874 he was enrolled in St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London. Although he passed the examination for membership in the Royal College of Surgeons, he failed the examination for the Society of Apothecaries. Rather than appeal to his father for further support, he took a position as a ship's surgeon for a year and a half. After this experience he passed the examination for licentiate of the Society and Apothecaries in 1881 and was able to join the Indian Medical Service. The position gave him ample time to devote to poetry and mathematics.

He was allowed a furlough in England in 1888-89 and used the time to earn a Diploma of Public Health. During this period he married Rosa Bloxam, with whom he had four children. When Ross returned to India he became interested in the malarial parasite, which had been discovered in 1880 by Alphonse Laveran (1845-1922). Ross's initial attempts to find the parasite in blood smears taken from malaria patients were unsuccessful, but during another furlough in London in 1894, Patrick Manson (1844-1922) taught him how to identify the Plasmodium. Manson also discussed his belief that mosquitoes transmitted malaria. Ross was convinced that he would be able to find evidence in India that would confirm Manson's hypothesis. After two years of fruitless work, in 1897 he found the malarial parasite in the stomach wall of a brown dapple-winged mosquito that is now known as Anopheles. With help from Manson, Ross was able to obtain a research leave from the Indian Medical Service in order to carry out further research in Calcutta. Using bird malarial as a model system, Ross was able to demonstrate the developmental steps that the malarial parasite undergoes within mosquitoes and birds.

In 1899 Ross retired from the Indian Medical Service, which had repeatedly obstructed his malaria research, and was appointed to a lectureship at the new Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Ross developed mathematical models to help explain the epidemiology of malaria. He served as a consulting advisor on malaria prevention throughout the world, traveling to Sierra Leone, Mauritius, Greece, and other areas where malaria was a major public health threat. While in Sierra Leone, he was able to demonstrate the life cycle of human malaria. Although the problem of malaria was complex, Ross optimistically believed that mosquito control was the key to prevention and that it could be accomplished simply and inexpensively. These ideas were most fully explained in his book Prevention of Malaria (1910), but his Memoirs (1923) provide a more detailed account of his career and his bitter priority battle with the Italian parasitologist Batttista Grassi (1854-1925), who claimed to have discovered the malaria transmission cycle before Ross.

In 1912 Ross settled in London and was able to devote more of his time to literature and poetry, the fields he had originally hoped to pursue. His novels and poems received little encouragement, but the establishment of the Ross Institute, which later became part of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, memorialized his scientific work.


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Ronald Ross

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