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Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

DENNIS BUSBY, aged 101


Born in North London, he was the son of William Busby, a gas fitter, and Ellen King. He was always known as ‘Den’.

He left school aged 15 and joined the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), based in Hampstead. They had been created in 1919, during the Spanish Flu pandemic and were involved in a lengthy, sustained project to ensure this never happened again.

His job was not very important. He had to constantly wash the glassware after scientists’ experiments. He was a ‘lab-boy’.

However, he was so keen and interested, at 16 he was promoted to be laboratory assistant to Wilson Smith, one of the leading scientists in the Institute.

It was Wilson Smith, alongside Dr Sir Christopher Andrewes, who developed the world’s first influenza vaccine. They worked on developing flu in ferrets.

They needed a guinea pig for their vaccine, so Dennis became the first person in world history to receive a flu vaccine.

And it worked. He didn’t catch it.

He felt he was lucky to join the NIMR when he did. After years of treating their staff in an ad-hoc basis, they created a proper pay structure with opportunities for promotion and a pension, just about the time Dennis joined them.

By the start of the Second World War, he was working on projects alongside Smith and Andrewes.

In 1941, he married Maureen Kingham, having two daughters, Gillian and Phillipa.

In the latter part of the war years, Dennis worked on the mass production of the typhus vaccine for the Ministry of Supply, to give to the vast amount of troops stationed abroad.

Despite this, he was still called up in 1944 and consequently served in the Royal Navy.

Dennis Busby Royal Navy (courtesy Network Homes)
Dennis Busby Royal Navy (courtesy Network Homes)

He was sent abroad but was immediately called back. Dr Andrewes had claimed that the NIMR could not operate successfully without him. Nevertheless, he was proud to have served in the military.

He was immediately seconded to the Medical Research Council for the rest of the war.

Back at NIMR, he was put in charge of overseeing the movement of the whole institute from Hampstead to Mill Hill – a vast operation.

For this he was promoted to Head Technician of the Bacteriology and Virus Department.

NIMR became the World Influenza Centre in 1947, as designated by the World Health Organisation.

He believed that the war had broken down a lot of the strict barriers between the scientists and their staff, and things had become more informal. He once called Dr Porterfield by his Christian name, James. Porterfield just carried on regardless, but Dennis was aghast at his own temerity. From that day on he reverted to ‘Sir’ for all the scientists.

But despite a less formal atmosphere, there were still separated dining rooms for scientists and their staff, right into the 1960s.

But Dr Christopher Andrewes was not less formal. Even when Dennis was in his 30s, he called him “lab-boy”. “It didn’t worry me, but I’ve always remembered that. I thought ‘Good Lord! I’m still only his lab-boy.”

In 1964 he wrote a seminal guide to lab procedures, ‘Virological Technique’, which is still used to this day.

In the 1970s, he improved conditions for keeping animals at the Institute and developed the ability to freeze-dry viruses – a major breakthrough.

Then he became Principal Technician for the whole institute, receiving an MBE. It was presented to him by the Queen.

He retired in 1979.

In retirement, Dennis and Maureen moved to Wisbech St Mary in Cambridgeshire, and then on to Horncastle in Lincolnshire. Their final move was to Ware in Hertfordshire.

He became a passionate gardener, proud of the immense number of vegetables he could produce.

Maureen died in 2006. He immediately did a parachute jump for charity – the hospice she had spent her last days in. He was 87. He said Maureen would never have allowed him to do it but would have approved of the charity.

Both his daughters predeceased him.

Dennis 100th birthday (courtesy Network Homes)
Dennis 100th birthday (courtesy Network Homes)

He claimed he never, ever caught flu after 1936.

RIP – Receiving Influenza Protection

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BARRY ST JOHN, aged 76

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