Professor John Sprent (1915-2010), parasitologist

Professor John Sprent. Interview sponsored by The University of Queensland.

Professor John Sprent was born in 1915, in Mill Hill, England. He received an MRCVS diploma from the Royal Veterinary College in London in 1939. In 1942 he was awarded a BSc in zoology with first class honours from the University of London. After receiving his degree, Sprent went to work at the Vom Veterinary Station in Nigeria. His work there, on Bunostomum phlebotomum (hookworms) in cattle, resulted in a PhD (1945) from the University of London, where he also received a DSc in 1953. In 1946 he went to the University of Chicago researching the parasitic nematode Ascaris suum. His studies of Ascaridoidea (nematode worms) continued while he was a senior research fellow at the Ontario Research Foundation in Toronto, Canada, where he worked from 1948 to 1952. Professor Sprent moved to the University of Queensland in 1952 as a lecturer in veterinary parasitology. He remained at the university for the rest of his career. In 1954 he became research professor of parasitology in the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and Parasitology and was professor of parasitology from 1956 to 1983. In 1961 a separate Department of Parasitology was established at the university.

Interviewed by Julie Campbell in 2008.


Family and early life

John, firstly can you tell us where you were born, and a little of your family and your early life?

I was born in Mill Hill, which was then a small village north of London but is now, of course, an extension of London itself. And, well, my boyhood was just a normal sort of boyhood. We used to collect tadpoles and watch them change into frogs, and we used to sometimes go off to the seaside, where I liked to go to the fish shop and get a fish head – free – and attach it to a piece of string. You would then go out to one of the breakwaters and drop the fish head into the water, and when you pulled it up you had the most beautiful crabs attached to it. I think that, biologically speaking, those were my first experiences of animals.

My father was a keeper of ancient maps at the British Museum, in London. He died at a rather early age in 1931, when I was about 16, so I don't really remember terribly much about him. My mother and father were separated: he lived in London and my mother lived down in Sussex, which was the earliest home that I can remember.

I had a brother and a sister. My dear sister is still alive, the only member of my family that is left, because my brother died about five years ago and my mother died about 10 years ago at the ripe old age of 101. She was a remarkable woman.

At school, were you a good student?

Well, the answer to that question is no. I think I was a great disappointment to my father. Although he sacrificed quite a lot to send me to Shrewsbury, I didn't perform well at all. In fact, I remember that there were always three people at the bottom of the class when the marks were read out, and I was always two from the bottom, one from the bottom, or the bottom. But I enjoyed being at school, because I was keen on sport and I made a lot of friends.

And there were some famous people that went to the school.

[laugh] Yes. Charles Darwin was one, but too long before me. I wouldn't have appreciated him, I'm afraid. Another one that you might know about is Michael Palin, who was there a bit after I was. But I enjoyed school, again, for the friends I made.

Opportunities: university and a future wife

After school, what was your first job, and were you good at it?

I'm terribly sorry to say this, but I wasn't good there either. My father died in the time of the Great Depression and I had to find a job. I became an office-boy with WD & HO Wills, the cigarette people, and my job was to put invoices into envelopes so the address appeared in the right place. And even that I didn't seem to do terribly well, because I'd get letters sent back where it was all illegible. But again I made some very good friends. In particular I made one special friend who made a lot of difference to me.

He changed your life, didn't he? Just what happened?

I was feeling that I really didn't know what I was going to do. I didn't have any motivation at all. Then one day we were walking across the Thames, across Hungerford Bridge, which is by Westminster Bridge, and as we leant over the parapet he said that he wished he could have gone to university but he wasn't in the right class. (There was a lot of class distinction in England in those days.) He said, 'I'm just not in the right class. I haven't got the right background to do this. But I think you could do it.' And he made a proposal to me: 'If I paid for you to go to university for your first year, would you accept that?' I was quite overwhelmed that anybody could think that I was able to do it, because I didn't have very much in the way of good credentials.

I told my family about this. My mother was particularly keen on dogs and cats and animals of all kinds – guinea pigs, goodness knows what, you name it, she had 'em – and during the Depression she used to have boarding kennels. And she said, 'Why don't you become a vet?' I thought about that, and I thought, 'Why not?' So I left my job and went to Liverpool as an undergraduate veterinary student at the University of Liverpool. It was my mother who really had made that decision for me.

Then the whole tide seemed to change, because I had the motivation. As soon as I started the subjects in the first-year course, I was very keen on the course and study, and so I progressed well.

Another person who had a great influence on your life was your first wife, Muriel, to whom I believe you were married for 61 years, until her death. Can you tell us a little bit about Muriel?

Muriel I met when I was an office-boy and she was a telephone operator. We got together and we seemed to be 'an item', as they say these days. When I went off to Liverpool she stayed in London, but she was always very enthusiastic and immensely loyal, and wanted to participate in anything that I did. She had a great influence on me, because she spurred me on.

I only had to be in Liverpool for one year, and then I was able to transfer to London and it wasn't very long before we got married. That was in 1937.

A single failure opens up a great future

What job did you get after gaining your veterinary degree from the University of London, and where did it take you?

Well, I have to explain that around 1938, before the war, I was awarded a Colonial Service veterinary scholarship. I hadn't actually finished my veterinary course at that point, but I received my diploma (as it was in those days) in 1939.

Although I did pretty well in the course, there was one subject in which I failed. That was practical animal husbandry, a subject I didn't know anything about, I had to admit. But it did have a tremendous effect on my life, because I had to do that subject again. In other words, it was July when I took the final degree and it was December when I was supposed to take that extra subject.

Because it was wartime I had to do what I was told, and I was scheduled to go to Kenya to work on cattle ticks there. But a month after the end of my course, the war started. It was now impossible to go to Kenya, and I was told that when I'd finished my degree in zoology I must go to Nigeria. So I went to Nigeria because I'd failed in that one subject. And if I'd gone to Kenya, I would have been working on an entirely different subject from that which I pursued in Nigeria.

While you were not very academic during your childhood, in 1942 you were indeed awarded a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology with first class honours from the University of London. Also you were awarded the Coleman Silver Medal in Veterinary Medicine and a Gold Medal in Pathology. So your academic expertise obviously picked up quite a lot once you went to university.

Oh, absolutely, yes. Then, just after I received my degree, I went to Nigeria.

The place of worms in the life pyramid

Your work in Nigeria led you to write a PhD. What was it about?

I became interested in anaemia in cattle. And the anaemia that I was investigating was caused by hookworms, which gradually increased in numbers in the small intestine of the cattle. I did quite a bit of research on the blood picture, and the other aspect was: how did they get the worms? The worms landed up in the intestine and sucked blood and caused anaemia, but how did they get there?

Well, I showed that actually the eggs pass out in the droppings, the eggs hatch into little tiny larvae, and the larvae climb up the grass blades and penetrate through the skin of the cattle. When they have got through the skin they pass to the lungs and then they're coughed up and swallowed, and that's where they reach their final destination.

So that's really what I was doing in Nigeria. And when I had finished my tour, while the war was still on, I came back home to England and submitted my work for my PhD at the University of London.

Where did you go next, and why?

When I was in Nigeria I was very much impressed with the work of Dr WH Taliaferro [pronounced Tolliver]. Actually, he spelt his name T-a-l-i-a-f-e-r-r-o, but for some reason he called himself Tolliver, and everybody else called him Dr Tolliver. He was a great figure in the subject of immunity in parasitic infections, and he wrote an important book on the subject. I had seen that in Nigeria, and I had decided I wanted to go and work with him. So that's where I went next, to the University of Chicago. I was there for two years.

And after that?

After that, actually, I was offered a professorship in the University of Chicago. In order to accept it, however, I had to renounce my British subject status, and I didn't really want to do that. But, at a meeting, I had met somebody from the University of Toronto, and I became interested in the animals of the north, of the Arctic. This was because the particular group of worms that I was interested in by this time have an interesting life history: they start off at the bottom of what I call a life pyramid, where there are a lot of lowly animals such as earthworms, wood lice and various things like that, which take up the eggs of the worm. Those animals then get eaten by rats, mice and so on, which form the centre part of the pyramid. And then, finally, at the top there are the dominant carnivores – in this particular case, the polar bears, the lynxes, the bobcats, the wolves. I thought I'd like to go and work with them.

So I did, and I worked at several places up on Hudsons Bay. Actually, as my particular job at that time, I was assigned to investigate why the beaver had been dying. I had to go and collect their frozen carcasses. We used to go in a plane with skis, and then we would meet an Indian who would tell us where he had put the various beaver carcasses – which he'd been told to keep because we had this investigation going. But what we had to do was to go on snowshoes and find these carcasses. This was very interesting, and I stayed there for four years.

At the end of that time, in about 1950, although I had amassed quite a deal of information about the worms in that life pyramid I thought I'd like to get back to straight veterinary work. And I happened to see a job advertised for a lecturer in veterinary parasitology in the University of Queensland. It then took about two years to organise transport and everything.

The move to Australia

You came to Australia in 1952. What did you do once you were here?

Well, I didn't yet have a department, of course – I was just a lecturer in the Veterinary School. But in Canada I had been corresponding for quite a long time with the dean, Professor TK Ewer, over this job and he was immensely encouraging. I had all sorts of problems that I wanted to solve, because I didn't want to just teach veterinary parasitology; I wanted to teach all the branches of parasitology. He was very helpful in this, but of course it was a long struggle. In the early days, you see, the vet school wanted to spend all the money that came to it on veterinary science, whereas I wanted to branch out into other things like marine parasitology and medical parasitology.

But at the same time I was doing some research, as an extension of the work I was doing in Canada. Two of the worms which I had been studying in Canada also occurred in Brisbane, in dogs. And I had found that when I gave mice the eggs from worms in dogs, these eggs would hatch and then migrate around the tissues of the mouse, and some of them would end up in the eye and the brain.

The interesting thing was that, in New Orleans, Dr Paul Beaver had been working on somewhat similar lines and he had discovered the occurrence of one of these larvae in the eye of a patient. I did more work on this and published several papers about it. Apparently a blood vessel associated with the retinal artery turns a fairly sharp corner somewhere in the eye, and when the larvae that are circulating around in the blood come to this sharp corner, they penetrate through and produce a granuloma in the back of the eye which is sometimes confused with a retinoblastoma. And so I was working with some of the eye specialists – particularly Dr Greer, down in Melbourne – on the occurrence of this granuloma of the eye. That took up quite a bit of time of, say, the first two or three years while I was at the vet school.

Broadening the parasitology scope

In 1956 you became professor of parasitology in the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and Parasitology at the University of Queensland. And then you were appointed professor of parasitology, with a grant from the Reserve Bank. Can you tell us about those years in the late '50s and the early '60s, and how you came to establish a separate Department of Parasitology at the university?

This was all part of my original plan to produce teaching, and research, in parasitology in medicine and in marine and veterinary science. What I really wanted was to separate off my work from the veterinary science proper, so that I could find an individual, separate source of funds. On the invitation of the vice-chancellor I put up a scheme to the Reserve Bank for the endowment of a chair in parasitology, and I outlined what I wanted to do. Dr Nugget Coombs was the governor of the Reserve Bank then, and he was very supportive. He gave a grant to the university to endow the chair, a chair was formed and I was appointed to it.

That was the prelude. Whereas in the first place I was in the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and Parasitology, I was able to change that round to Department of Parasitology and Anatomy, and finally I shed the anatomy part and it was just parasitology. As soon as a Department of Parasitology was formed, in about 1962, I started off in the medical, marine and agricultural parasitology.

At that time your research interests related very much to immunology with respect to parasitism. You published some very important works at that time, and were influenced by some very well-known Australians. What can you tell us about that?

Well, I can tell you about the people I was influenced by. In particular, when I first came Dr Ian Mackerras was director of the Queensland Institute for Medical Research. He was a great influence on me. I admired him greatly. He was doing just the sort of things I would like to do. He was very encouraging, and it was through him that I became a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.

The other person who was very influential – not so much in person but by his writing – was Sir Macfarlane Burnet. I set out to try to apply his speculations and his ideas on clonal selection et cetera to parasitology, and I produced a paper called 'Parasitism, immunity and evolution', which did evidently arouse some comment.

But it was all a long time ago, 40-odd years, and really I forget the niceties of the situation.

Valued help in a great scientific achievement

Among your many achievements in science, what do you think is the greatest?

I don't think I achieved any particular things. What I did do was to accumulate. And I did accumulate an enormous amount of information about a particular group of nematode parasitic worms known as the Ascaridoidea, of which the best known is the human Ascaris lumbricoides. There are an enormous number of species in this group, and they occur in different countries, different parts of the world. I wanted simply to accumulate a knowledge on that particular group of parasites – how they got into their hosts and what they did when they got there, their public health importance.

It was a gradual accumulation of knowledge about a particular group, and I think that is really what I would say was my greatest scientific achievement, because it took me to all sorts of countries. It took me to all the countries in South America, collecting specimens, and then to south east Asia and Africa. So I had an enormous collection, thousands of specimens, which I gave to the Queensland Museum.

You could not have done all your work without some help from other people. Can you tell us who they were, and how they helped?

I'm glad you asked me that question, because I do feel that in any scientific achievement one is dependent on technical assistance from people, and throughout my time in the University of Queensland I have received an enormous amount of help, of different kinds, from various people.

First of all there's my second wife, who was my assistant for about 40 years. She accumulated all the knowledge, all the reference work, all the reprints, all the literature necessary for me to study these things, and I simply couldn't have done it without her.

And then there was Ann McKeown. All the specimens that I collected, she collated them, labelled them and kept them, and these were the ones that were handed over to the Queensland Museum. Also John Mines gave a lot of time to sectioning specimens for me, and that kind of thing.

Personal achievements

Apart from your scientific achievements, you've had a number of personal achievements, haven't you?

Well, yes. My greatest personal achievement, I feel, was the building up of the Department of Parasitology in the University of Queensland. It was a great source of pride to me, and I have a photograph to show you that it is quite a sizeable department. We had students, and visitors, from all over the world. Although now, unfortunately, it doesn't exist any more, it is something that I feel proud of.

Also, going back a long way, when I was in Nigeria I had occasion not only to work with a number of African helpers but to be with quite a number of Africans. But there was a tendency in those days for whites and blacks to keep separate. The Europeans, as they were called, had a club where they all used to foregather, and I felt that it was important that the blacks had a club too. So I established the Vom African Club. I've got a letter which was written to me, dated 31st of August, 1945. Would it be appropriate for me to read something from that letter?

Certainly. Go ahead.

This is why I feel proud about it. The letter says: 'I was directed by the committee and the entire members of the club to express their deep appreciation and gratitude for your philanthropic spirit which has brought our club into existence. You are assured that as long as we remain to enjoy the fruits of universal brotherhood of man which you practically demonstrated in your activities among the African staff of this station, your memory as the founder of the Vom African Club will never be forgotten in the history of our progress.' I felt very pleased to get that letter.

John, I believe there are some other things that you are personally very proud of. What are they?

Firstly, I was for 20 years editor of the International Journal for Parasitology, and this was a source of pride to me – particularly to get the volume of the journal which I was presented with when I retired, when people said some nice things about the publication and so on.

The other thing that I feel proud about is the development of this property. When I first came in 1954, it was a dairy farm. I think I can say that the number of trees on this property you could count on your hand. It was just a mass of ring-barked gum trees, and I set about building a band of what they call dry rainforest, going across. That is still in existence, and next August there is going to be a special meeting here to mark the 10th anniversary of the launch of Land for Wildlife, of which this property 10 years ago was named number one.

There are also slightly less than a thousand hoop pines in a fairly advanced state of maturity, and I feel proud when I walk around amongst all those things. I feel pleased.

You have here 60 acres in Moggill, an outer suburb of Brisbane. Suburbia is at your doorstep now, but this is an oasis.

Yes, that's quite true.

The next generation

Finally, would you tell us about your children, and what they do for a living and how they've impacted on your life?

I have had three children. Unfortunately, my dear daughter – who had a property up in the Atherton Tableland – died about 10 years ago. But I have also two boys. (Well, I call them boys, but they're both over 65 now, I believe.)

The eldest, Jonathan, has done extremely well. He was a medical student in the University of Queensland, and then he went off to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, where he did his PhD. Next he went off to Basel, then to the University of London and after that the University of Pennsylvania, and then to the Scripps Clinic, in California. Now he's just come back to Australia as a holder of the Macfarlane Burnet Fellowship. I feel very proud of him. He is not only a fellow of the Australian Academy [of Science] but also a fellow of the Royal Society.

The other is Antony, who is remarkably energetic, innovative – quite brilliant, in many ways. He is at the University of Tasmania, where he is in surveying, which has been his work until he just recently retired. I feel very proud of both of them.

Thank you very much, Professor Sprent, for telling us about your interesting and very productive life.

It's a pleasure and a privilege.

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