"The most distinguished contribution made by a Trinidadian in the of
Tropical Medicine was made by Dr. Joseph Lennox Pawan."
Dr Joseph Pawan achieved international acclaim for the discovery of the transmission of the rabies virus by vampire bats. This led to the development of a vaccine for the virus. He also researched many other tropical diseases in the 1940s.
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 then entered Edinburgh University where he graduated with Bachelor degrees in Medicine and Surgery in 1912 and studied at the Pasteur Institute in France. In 1913, he returned to his homeland to serve in the First World War as an Assistant Surgeon at the Colonial Hospital in Port of Spain, and later as the district medical officer in Tobago and Cedros. In 1923, Pawan was appointed bacteriologist to the government. During his time at the Hospital, he also served as a pathologist and carrying out public service assignments in public health and medico-legal work. However, it was in his capacity as bacteriologist that he made the greatest discovery of his career.
In 1925, an outbreak of paralytic rabies devastated Trinidad’s cattle. Scores of animals in Mucurapo and St. Augustine became ill and died within a few days. This phenomenon baffled doctors and scientists, who rushed to find a cure for this deadly disease. In 1929, the outbreak killed 13 people in Siparia and over the next few years, the death toll began to climb. Although the disease was later identified as rabies, the experts did not know how it was being transmitted, since the only known vector for transmitting rabies was the dog and none of the victims were known to have been bitten by dogs. Additionally, no case of rabies had been identified in Trinidad since 1914. Dr Pawan, who was the government pathologist at the time, joined with J.A. Waterman and H.M.V. Metivier to solve this enigma. Pawan was convinced of a link between the outbreak in 1925 among cattle and the incidents of humans in the early 1930s.
Pawan began studying the rabies patients, looking for a clue to the mystery. One day, a female patient told him that a month before her illness, she had awakened from her sleep to find a bat biting her under her big toe. She had thought no more about it but this was the missing piece of the puzzle for Dr Pawan. He knew that bat bites were very common in country districts, and that under normal circumstances, they were harmless. However, this case was different and Dr Pawan made the link between the bat and the bite, tracing the source of the infection back to the same toe where the patient had been bitten. Despite Dr Pawan’s efforts, the infection worsened and the patient died a few days after she had provided this valuable piece of information but her death had not been in vain. Although this discovery seemed novel, A. Carini had already established that vampire bats were possible vectors of rabies in 1913 and Pawan knew that he had found what he needed.
Despite Pawan’s partial success, many people were still dying and the country was suffering economic losses from the death of livestock. The virus had not yet been isolated and until it was, a vaccination would not be possible. In 1932, Pawan isolated the rabies virus from various species of bats including Desmodus rotundus (vampire bat), a feat which gave Dr Pawan international recognition. It was a landmark in the treatment of rabies and through his success, Dr Pawan was instrumental in saving countless lives and eradicating a deadly virus which had burdened Trinidad and South America for the better part of a century.
For his outstanding work, Dr Pawan was decorated with the coveted Member of the British Empire (MBE) award in 1934, for a discovery that was hailed as the hallmark in Tropical Medicine. During the 1940s, he also conducted research on tuberculosis, malaria and other tropical diseases.
Following his retirement in 1947, this humble achiever continued to work part-time at the Colonial Hospital. In 1954, Dr. Pawan was appointed consultant on rabies to the United States Government and in the same year he was invited to become Chairman of the World Health Organisation, an offer he declined on account of illness. Eventually, he was hospitalised because of his deteriorating health and later died on November 3rd, 1957.
In 2002, PAHO honoured this “supreme scientist” posthumously as a “Hero in Health” for his contribution to the development of public health.
“……There is no doubt that the most distinguished
contribution made by a Trinidadian in the world of Tropical Medicine was
made by Dr Joseph Lennox Pawan……”
“……Dr Pawan stands out for having made a discovery that dramatically altered a most distressing health situation in Trinidad. In the 1930s …….”
This Icon is also featured in the Caribbean Icons in Science, Technology and Innovation Volume I and Trinidad & Tobago Icons Volume I:
1969, Lloyd Sydney Smith (editor) The British
Caribbean Who, What, Why 1955-56. Bell and Bain Ltd, Glasgow, Scotland.
1973, Mills, Therese, Great West Indians: Life Stories for Young Readers, Longman Ltd, London. pgs. 33-37
1998, Brerton, Bridget, B. Samaroo, G. Taitt.(compilers), Dictionary of Caribbean Biography
Volume 1. Department of History UWI, St. Augustine,. pg. 83
“Meet TT’s “Hero in Health” – but he’s been dead 45 years now” Newsday, April 18th, 2002
“St Mary’s inducts 15 of its best into Hall of Fame”, Sunday Guardian, September 21st, 1997. pg 15
“Dr Pawan dies at 70” Trinidad Guardian, November 5th, 1957.
St. Mary’s College Hall of Fame: Inductees 1997-2001
1931, Pawan, J.L. The Water Supplies of Trinidad and Tobago, Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene,
1931, Hurst, E.W. and Pawan, J.L. - An Outbreak of Rabies in Trinidad Without history of Bites and with the Symptoms of Acute Ascending Myelitis. Lancet, 221, 622. .
1932, Hurst, E.W. and Pawan, J.L.– A further Account of the Trinidad Outbreak of Acute Rabic Myelitis: histology of the experimental disease. Jour. Path. Bact., 35, 301
1936, Pawan, J.L. Transmission of the Paralytic Rabies in Trinidad of the
Vampire Bat Annual Tropical Medicine and Parasitol, 30:137-156.
1900-1907 St. Mary’s College
1907- 1912 Edinburgh University Memberships:
1907 Island Scholarship
1912 Bachelor degrees in Medicine and Surgery
1934 Member of the British Empire (MBE)
2002 “Hero in Health” PAHO
Major Scientific Achievement:
The isolation of the deadly rabies virus was
the precursor for the development of a vaccine, which saved countless lives
and reduced the economic losses of valuable livestock resources.
1913 Supernumerary Medical Officer, Colonial Hospital, Port-of Spain
1915-1919 Medical Officer
1923 Government Bacteriologist and Pathological Registrar
??? Senior Pathologist
1954 Honorary Consultant bacteriologist to the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission Medical Centre
1954 Consultant on Rabies to the United States Government
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