FeLV pioneer dies at 83

The man who discovered feline leukemia virus (FeLV) has died at the age of 83. William Jarrett’s discovery of FeLV prompted American biomedical researcher Robert Gallo to discover the human leukemia virus and, subsequently, HIV.

Read his full biography below from the Guardian.


William Jarrett, who has died aged 83, was the most distinguished veterinary pathologist of his generation. He is probably best known for his discovery in 1964 of the retrovirus that causes leukaemia and lymphoma in domestic cats, but his research covered a remarkable breadth of subjects, principally viral and parasitic diseases, and his findings led to important advances in human and veterinary medicine.

Bill was born in Glasgow but his family moved shortly afterwards to a smallholding near Cumbernauld, North Lanarkshire, where he grew up. He was educated at Lenzie academy and followed his elder brother Tom into the Glasgow Veterinary College, graduating with honours in 1949. His subsequent postgraduate research in pathology, both at the college and with Daniel Cappell, professor of pathology at the University of Glasgow Medical School, provided the basis for his encyclopedic knowledge of animal and human diseases.

After the award of his PhD in 1953, he married Anna Sharp, whom he had met at school. Anna was then a lecturer at the Glasgow College of Domestic Science and provided a home that was a focus of exceptional warmth and hospitality for friends and colleagues.

Bill was among a group of young scientists recruited by William Weipers to the new veterinary school, formed in 1949 from the incorporation of the college into the University of Glasgow. There he was part of an interdisciplinary team investigating parasitic bronchitis in calves, then a major problem in the south-west of Scotland.

The tangible result of their research was Dictol, which remains the only vaccine against a nematode parasite, and is still in use in many countries. The commercial success of Dictol promoted a significant growth of parasitic research at the Glasgow school, which then expanded into Africa. Bill was part of an international team seconded to establish a veterinary school in Nairobi in the 1960s. While there, his novel work on the kinetics of replication of Theileria parva, the cause of East Coast fever in cattle, provided the basis for future vaccine developments.

In the early 1960s, Bills attention was drawn to a cluster of cases of lymphoma in a household of pet cats in Glasgow. His belief that this was caused by an infectious agent was confirmed by reproducing the disease in transmission experiments, and finding a retrovirus, now known as feline leukaemia virus (FeLV), in the resulting tumours. Subsequent research by his rapidly expanding virology group underpinned the development of diagnostic tests and vaccines which have virtually eradicated this virus from many countries.

The discovery of FeLV added to the realisation that viruses might be major causes of cancers in humans. Bills observation that FeLV caused mainly lymphomas of T-cell origin in the cat switched the American biomedical researcher Robert Gallos virus-hunting activities to T-cell tumours in people, and led to his discovery of the human leukaemia virus, HTLV, and subsequently HIV. Bills association with Gallo resulted in a year working in Washington as a Fogarty scholar in 1985. On his return, he became part of the Aids programme of the UK Medical Research Council and established a research group that used feline immunodeficiency virus as a model for HIV vaccination.

In 1968 Bill was appointed professor of veterinary pathology at Glasgow, a post he held for 22 years. In the late 1970s, investigating the reasons for the high incidence of alimentary tract cancer in cattle in some parts of Scotland, he discovered that a papillomavirus causes the disease in association with the consumption of bracken, which contains carcinogens. His discovery was the definitive proof that this family of viruses is implicated in cancer development. Yet another research group was set up and, following a thorough study of the biology of the virus, he and his colleagues developed a vaccine that was the forerunner of the vaccine for cervical cancer in women.

Bill retired in 1990. His remarkable contribution to comparative medicine was recognised with the award of honorary degrees and lifetime achievement awards from many universities and scientific societies throughout Europe and North America. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1965 and a fellow of the Royal Society in 1980.

Bill was a charismatic character and hugely entertaining, which won him many friends and research collaborators. His legacy to science in Glasgow has been the recruitment of a new generation of scientists who have established the veterinary school as the largest research institute of comparative medicine in the UK, with a particular focus on virology and oncology.

He was a courageous man, both physically and intellectually. Over the years, he and Anna engaged in sports that carried a certain frisson: mountaineering, skiing and particularly sailing, off the coasts of west Scotland, France and Mallorca. Sadly, these activities ceased 10 years ago as a result of their ill-health. Anna died of a stroke last year and Bill succumbed to Parkinsons disease, borne with his habitual courage.

He is survived by his daughters, Freda and Ruth, both medical graduates; Fredas children, Amanda and Hamish; and his brother Oswald, who is also an authority on retroviruses.

• William Fleming Hoggan Jarrett, veterinary pathologist, born 2 January 1928; died 27 August 2011.