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Educating the public about BSE


Science was blamed for BSE
Aaron Klug Scientist
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Somehow scientists were blamed for this. The Duke of Edinburgh said to us once, we used to see him fairly regularly because he was Chairman of our committee which was trying to raise money to renew the buildings of the Royal Society, said to me, 'Why didn't you chaps predict it?' As though you could predict something that had never happened before and had had no experience. The editor of The Ecologist... Goldsmith, Zach Goldsmith, talked about the science induced plagues of AIDS and BSE, science induced. Of course, he's an organic farmer, he's still around. That was the kind of thing we were faced with, science induced plagues. Well, first of all, it wasn't sciences who started feeding animal carcasses to other animals, so-called bone meal is what it was called. It was farmers who started breaking up, taking dead carcasses or whatever, or remains of carcasses and turning them into bone meal, and using it as a feed. Of course, they... originally bone meal, but there were bits of meat as well attached to it, and so it was farmers who did it. Then the process became industrialised, and the question is this: why is this being done, because this has been done for about 20 or 30 years, why would it appear now?

Well, that issue has never been settled, but at the time we didn't know. We just thought that it may have come from scrapie via the... because there were 40 million sheep in this country. It's very different from most European countries. There's more sheep per head population than in any other European country, certainly in the United States, and they were other people who thought it came from pesticides or things of that sort. There were all sorts of strands. There was a farmer in Norfolk who gained a lot of publicity on the BBC saying this all came from these phosphorous agents, nerve agents, and so on. And we've found ourselves in the middle of all this, and we tried to make sense of it. So of course in the Royal Society the great thing is you can find a group of people who have some sort of expertise or experience in almost any branch of science, that's the point of the Society. And so we set up a committee headed by Peter Lachmann and so we looked into it. At the same time, there were... studies were set up about cattle. This was a Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the MAFF as it was called, set up a study of this sort of thing, epidemiologist... Roy Anderson, then at Imperial College, an epidemiologist, and they tried to estimate the severity. Now this is BSE itself, the severity of the disease. And some studies went on. In the end the... we were called in, because they... I was called in personally at one point, because it was clear that the disease took some time to develop and they wanted to know the epidemiology of the disease. So Roy said... he came to me to say that he was trying to get figures from MAF, about the demography of milking herds mostly, milking cattle. I said, 'Why do you want to do that?' He said, 'Well, you could estimate from the proportion of animals of different ages in the population whether the farmers were sending... the first signs of disease, were sending them off to market before...' The government wanted to ban obviously the sale of infected animals, because it was suspected now by this time that it was due to human consumption. But they couldn't get what they wanted, the data. Because you could estimate, you see, from... there would be a shortfall in the number of animals, the five or six year olds. The dairy cow gives milk for about five or six years, and then they send them off for slaughter. But if they were getting scrapie... if they were getting BSE, the farmer would send them off to market earlier, you know, because the farmer's interested in making a living, and this was the practice.

They couldn't get the data from the Ministry of Agriculture. So he asked me to intervene, so I wrote to the Minister... there was a Secretary of State for Agriculture in those days, and various Ministers, and I got sent from one Minister to another, and in the end I couldn't get any data out of them. They said, 'Well, we had the data but it's now in the hands of the Milk Marketing Board.' So I tried to get the Milk Marketing Board, and found that they had been wound up and replaced by something else, you see. It was all... it was just... the government was being very defensive. They refused to do it, but in the end they did start releasing data to Roy Anderson as a result of my letters, and I tried to reach the Secretary of State and failed. I got beaten back by this one... It was about BSE. Apparently, he said, he said indirectly, my Ministers are dealing with this. Eventually the data were leaked bit by bit, but not officially to Roy Anderson, and they were able to make estimates of the size of the BSE and they recommended the slaughter of all infected animals over thirty months. That was based upon statistics and they actually... their predictions worked out quite well.

Born in Lithuania, Aaron Klug (1926-2018) was a British chemist and biophysicist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982 for developments in electron microscopy and his work on complexes of nucleic acids and proteins. He studied crystallography at the University of Cape Town before moving to England, completing his doctorate in 1953 at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1981, he was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University. His long and influential career led to a knighthood in 1988. He was also elected President of the Royal Society, and served there from 1995-2000.

Listeners: Ken Holmes John Finch

Kenneth Holmes was born in London in 1934 and attended schools in Chiswick. He obtained his BA at St Johns College, Cambridge. He obtained his PhD at Birkbeck College, London working on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus with Rosalind Franklin and Aaron Klug. After a post-doc at Childrens' Hospital, Boston, where he started to work on muscle structure, he joined to the newly opened Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge where he stayed for six years. He worked with Aaron Klug on virus structure and with Hugh Huxley on muscle. He then moved to Heidelberg to open the Department of Biophysics at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research where he remained as director until his retirement. During this time he completed the structure of tobacco mosaic virus and solved the structures of a number of protein molecules including the structure of the muscle protein actin and the actin filament. Recently he has worked on the molecular mechanism of muscle contraction. He also initiated the use of synchrotron radiation as a source for X-ray diffraction and founded the EMBL outstation at DESY Hamburg. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1981 and is a member of a number of scientific academies.

John Finch is a retired member of staff of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. He began research as a PhD student of Rosalind Franklin's at Birkbeck College, London in 1955 studying the structure of small viruses by x-ray diffraction. He came to Cambridge as part of Aaron Klug's team in 1962 and has continued with the structural study of viruses and other nucleoproteins such as chromatin, using both x-rays and electron microscopy.

Tags: Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Milk Marketing Board, Zach Goldsmith, Peter Lachmann, Roy Anderson

Duration: 6 minutes, 12 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008