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Biographical entry Lowbury, Edward Joseph Lister (1913 - 2007)

OBE; MRCS and FRCS 1978; BM BCh Oxford 1939; DM 1957; Hon DSc Aston 1977; Hon LLD Birm 1980; FRCPath 1963; MRCP 1972; FRCP 1977; LRCP 1978.

6 December 1913
London, UK
10 July 2007
Bacteriologist and Poet


Edward Lowbury was an expert on hospital infection and also a distinguished writer and poet. He was born in London on 6 December 1913, the son of Benjamin William Lowbury, a general practitioner and a great admirer of Joseph Lister, after whom Lowbury was named. His mother, Alice Sarah Hallé, was a member of the family of the founder of the celebrated orchestra. He was educated at St Paul’s School, London, from which a leaving exhibition took him to University College, Oxford, where he won the War Memorial medical scholarship. He read for the honours school in physiology under Sherrington, Le Gros Clark and Howard Florey, and then went up to the London Hospital Medical College, where his teachers included Russell Brain and Donald Hunter. After qualifying he completed house jobs at the London and LCC sector hospitals, before training as a bacteriologist at the Emergency Public Health Laboratory Service in Cambridge.

In 1943 he joined the RAMC as a specialist in pathology with the rank of major, and served in the UK and East Africa. Whilst in Kenya he took a particular interest in witch- doctoring and folk medicine.

He returned to join the staff of the Medical Research Council, was a bacteriologist at the Common Cold Unit for three years, and then, in 1949, went to the MRC Burns Unit at the Birmingham Accident Hospital as head of bacteriology. Here he set up the Hospital Infection Research Laboratory, Dudley Road Hospital. He was also senior clinical lecturer in the pathology department of the University of Birmingham.

During this period Lowbury confirmed Coleman’s suggestion that closed ventilated burns dressing rooms would reduce air-borne infection, a discovery that was to be applied widely, especially in orthopaedics, where, together with Owen Lidwell and others, he organised a huge MRC controlled trial in joint replacement surgery. He was especially interested in the mechanism and prevention of antibiotics resistance, and discovered the plasmid in pseudomonas aeruginosa that renders it resistant to carbenicillin and other antibiotics. He developed tests to measure the efficacy of hand disinfection, and chaired the MRC subcommittee that published the seminal Aseptic methods in the operating suite (1968). He wrote over 200 papers, chapters and articles, and, among his books, Drug resistance in antimicrobial therapy (Springfield, Illinois, Thomas, c1974) and Control of hospital infection: a practical handbook (London, Chapman and Hall, 1975). He retired from medicine in 1979, but continued to work, travelling the world to lecture.

He was the recipient of many honours and awards, but, as a published poet, perhaps the distinction he prized most was that of being the John Keats memorial lecturer in 1973, jointly with Guy’s Hospital, our College and the Society of Apothecaries. He had won the prestigious Newdigate prize at Oxford as an undergraduate, published 14 volumes of poetry, and edited Apollo, an anthology of poems by doctor poets (London, Keynes, 1990). His notebook had ideas for poems at one end and for medical ideas at the other. They met in the middle, he said, for mutual enlightenment.

Short, slim, quietly spoken, Lowbury had enduring love of steam-engines, whose noises he could imitate perfectly. He married Alison Young, with whom he was to write biographies of the poet and physician Thomas Campion (Thomas Campion: poet, composer, physician, London, Chatto and Windus, 1970) and his father-in-law, the poet Andrew Young (To shirk no idleness: a critical biography of the poet Andrew Young, Salzburg/Oxford, University of Salzburg Press, 1997). Alison was a professional pianist, and together they founded the Birmingham Chamber Music Society. He developed glaucoma, went blind, and after his wife died in 2001, he went into a nursing home. He died on 10 July 2007, leaving three daughters.

Sources used to compile this entry: [BMJ 2007 335 353].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England