Our own Dr. Joseph Lennox Pawan received international acclaim for the discovery of the transmission of the rabies virus by vampire bats.
Joseph Lennox Pawan was born in Trinidad on September 6th 1887. He attended St. Mary’s College and won an Island Scholarship in 1907. He attained the Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery degrees from Edinburgh University, Scotland in 1912 and studied at the Pasteur Institute in France.In 1915 he started his career at the Colonial Hospital, Port of Spain as a District Medical Officer and was later appointed Bacteriologist. As the country’s only bacteriologist and pathologist, he provided services for the entire territory in hospital and public health work, as well as bacterial work at the Caribbean Medical Centre.
In 1925, many cattle on the island became ill and died suddenly. The same disease killed 13 people in 1929 and others died in ensuing years. The disease, later identified as rabies, was known to be spread by dogs. However, victims were not bitten by dogs and rabies had not been identified in Trinidad since 1914.
Pawan and his colleagues J.A. Waterman and H.M.V. Metivier were convinced of a link between the cattle outbreaks and human cases and worked in a simply equipped laboratory to isolate the disease. During research, a woman mentioned being bitten by a bat a month before becoming ill. A. Carini had established in 1913 that vampire bats carried the disease. Pawan knew that bat bites were common in rural districts and completed the puzzle, linking the bat and the bite.
In 1932 he and his team isolated the rabies virus from different species of bats including Desmodus rotundus (vampire bat). A vaccine was developed and Pawan was honoured for his hallmark discovery as a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 1934. He also discovered that sleeping sickness in livestock was due to disease-bearing insects from the South American mainland.
He retired in 1947 but continued to work part-time at the Colonial Hospital. In 1954 he became a consultant on rabies to the US Government. He was invited to work for the World Health Organization but declined due to poor health.
Hospitalized for the last three years of his life, Dr. Pawan passed away on November 3rd 1957. The Pan American Health Organization named him a “Hero in Health” in 2000 for his contribution to public health.
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