Sir Ronald Ross (13 May 1857 – 16 September 1932) was an English physician. In 1902 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery that malaria is spread by mosquitoes.
Ronald Ross was born on 13 May 1857 in Almora, then part of British India (now Uttarakhand, India), the first of ten children of General Sir Campbell Claye Grant Ross and his wife Matilda Charlotte Elderton. At the age of eight he was sent to England to live with his uncle and aunt on the Isle of Wight. He attended primary school in Ryde and was sent to boarding school in Springhill, near Southampton, from 1869. From an early age he was interested in literature, poetry, music and mathematics. He wanted to be a writer, but his father enrolled him in the medical course at St Bartholomew”s Hospital Medical College, London, after leaving secondary school. Ross was not particularly interested in university and spent most of his time composing music, poetry and plays. In 1879, he passed his military medical exams and worked as a ship”s doctor on a steamship bound for the transatlantic voyages while preparing for his exams as a pharmacist. He passed it for the second time in 1881, and after four months of preparation he joined the Indian Medical Service in the same year. Between June 1888 and May 1889, he travelled to England to obtain a qualification in public health and also attended a course in bacteriology.
Between 1881 and 1894, he worked in various locations – Madras, Burma, Baluchistan (now Pakistan), Andaman Islands, Bangalore, Secunderabad. In 1883, as a military doctor in the Bangalore garrison, he suggested that mosquito numbers could be reduced by reducing their access to water. In March 1894, he went on holiday to London with his family. Here he met Sir Patrick Manson, a Scottish expert on tropical diseases and malaria, who became Ross”s mentor and introduced him to the current problems of malaria research. Ross returned to India in March 1895 and, without even waiting for his luggage to clear customs, immediately rushed to the hospital in Bombay to draw blood from malaria patients and prepare smears.
In May 1895, Ross discovered an early stage of malaria in the stomach of a mosquito, but shortly afterwards he was sent to Bangalore to investigate an outbreak of cholera; there, malaria was not a regular occurrence. In May 1896, he went on a short leave to a malaria-infected station in the nearby hills, where, despite regular quinine intake, he was also struck down by cholera within three days. In June he was transferred to Secunderabad. After several unsuccessful attempts, in July 1897 he managed to breed twenty ”brown” mosquitoes from the larvae he collected and bribed a malaria patient to let himself be bitten by them. He then dissected the mosquitoes and found round bodies in their digestive tracts, which he knew for sure did not belong to the mosquito. In August, he was able to identify the causative agent of malaria in the intestinal tract of a “spotted-winged” mosquito (later identified as Anopheles).
In September 1897, he was posted to Bombay and from there to the malaria-free Rajasthan. Desperate not to continue his experiments, Ross contacted Patrick Manson, who persuaded the colonial government to transfer Ross to Calcutta on a ”special assignment” to research malaria and kala azar. A laboratory was made available to him in Calcutta, but he failed to find many malaria patients, and the doctors began treating them immediately. He had a bungalow built in a nearby village, where he occasionally went out and collected mosquitoes. Manson proposed to bridge the problem of the lack of patients by searching for birds, as the Russian Vasily Yakovlevich Danilevsky and the American William. G. MacCallum of America. Ross was a little stammering (“I don”t have to be in India to research bird malaria”) but he took the advice. In July 1898, he succeeded in showing that the avian parasite, which is very similar to the human-infective Plasmodium vivax, uses the mosquito as an intermediate host and that it is found in the insect”s salivary glands in the largest quantities. He also demonstrated experimentally that malaria could be transmitted from malaria-infected birds to healthy ones by mosquitoes.
In September 1898, he was invited to Assam in northeast India to determine the mode of transmission of kala azar. Ross had wrongly claimed that this pathogen, Leishmania donovani, was also transmitted by mosquitoes (later found to be by moth mosquitoes).
In 1899, Ross moved to England and found a teaching post at the Liverpool College of Tropical Diseases, where he was appointed professor in 1902. From 1912 he also worked as a tropical specialist at King”s College Hospital, London, until 1917. He was then appointed adviser on malaria to the Ministry of War and a year later to the Ministry of Pensions. He fought the spread of malaria in many parts of the world (and later in regions affected by the First World War) and promoted preventive measures.
He developed a mathematical model for the study of the epidemiology of malaria, which he included in his 1908 report on Mauritius and described in detail in a 1910 book.
In 1926, the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) opened the Ross Institute and Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Wimbledon, of which Ross was director until his death. The institute later became part of the London School of Public Health and Tropical Diseases, and the building was demolished.
Ronald Ross was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1902 “for his work on malaria, showing how it enters the body and thus laying the foundations for successful research into the disease and methods of fighting it.” In 1897-98, together with his Italian collaborator Giovanni Battista Grassi, he accurately determined the life cycle of P. falciparum, P. vivax and P. malariae, which infect humans, establishing that in humans, the female Anopheles mosquitoes are the vectors of the disease. Ross described only the transmission of Plasmodium relictum, which causes avian malaria, and, as he was not a zoologist, he did not identify the intermediate host insect, referring to it only as the “spotted-winged grey mosquito”. The Nobel Prize Committee initially wanted to divide the prize between the two of them, whereupon Ross launched into a nasty accusation, calling the Italian researcher a fraud, a fraudster who “preys on other people”s ideas”. Grassi responded in a similar tone, and the committee asked Robert Koch to be a neutral referee. Koch said that Grassi did not deserve the award, which Ross alone received.
Ross married Rosa Bessie Bloxam while on sabbatical in England in 1889. They had two daughters (Dorothy (1891-1947) and Sylvia (1893-1925)) and two sons (Ronald Campbell (1895-1914) and Charles Claye (1901-1966)). Ronald was killed in action at the Battle of La Cateau in the First World War.
Ronald Ross was described by his contemporaries as an eccentric, impulsive, egocentric man. His professional career was constantly in conflict with his students and colleagues. His smear campaign against Grassi has become almost legendary in academia. He was openly jealous of Patrick Manson”s ample income from private practice and in his memoirs he tried to belittle Manson”s contribution to malaria research. He repeatedly quarreled with the Liverpool Institute, of which he was a professor, reduced his salary and resigned twice; he was eventually dismissed without a pension.
He was a prolific writer. In addition to his medical and mathematical works, he wrote poems on all the important events of life, which he published in several volumes. In 1923 he published his 547-page autobiography Memoirs, with a Full Account of the Great Malaria Problem and its Solution.
After a long illness and asthma attacks, Ronald Ross died in the hospital of the institute he directed on 16 September 1932, aged 75.