Chris Collins

Christopher Collins, MBE, microbiologist, was born on 18th October 1919. He died on 19th October 2009, aged 90. We are indebted to Dr John Grange for writing this biography of Chris Collins. John is Visiting Professor at University College, London. He has had an active scientific collaboration with Chris for many years. They have prepared in collaboration with others the 8th Edition of Collins and Lyne’s Microbiological Methods (2004).

John writes:

Chris Collins is a gentleman. It is very important to emphasise this, as in these days so many of those values that once regularly distinguished the honourable gentleman from the rascal, the opportunist and the master of spin are fast becoming woefully rare. Chris was born in 1919 and, from the age of eleven, he attended an English grammar school where he was taught a few facts but he received his education from his parents and, particularly, from an aunt who encouraged his appreciation of music, art and literature. The latter had a lasting impact on him as is evident from the very high literary standard of his scientific writings.

Chris did well in his various school examinations and he must be particularly favoured by the Almighty as he was awarded a Credit in Religious Knowledge. This came as a considerable surprise to him as he had neither studied the subject nor sat the examination! Despite his academic ability, he did not go on to university – apparently his family had insufficient funds. Instead, he became a trainee sanitary inspector and also acted as a part-time laboratory assistant to the Medical Officer of Health of the Borough of Luton. Initially, this laboratory was no more than corner of an office and his main duty was to culture throat swabs for the diphtheria bacillus.

Later, new offices and laboratories were built and Chris became a full-time laboratory assistant and enthusiastically set about mastering a range of laboratory techniques. He would often visit the London County Council laboratories in order to gain experience and expertise in a wide range of microbiological methods.

Alas, the Second World War intervened and in 1939 Chris joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and, not unsurprisingly in view of his experience, was sent to the RAF Institute of Pathology. As a result of the standard of administration fairly typical of a British governmental organisation, Chris was dispatched to a laboratory in Iceland only to find that there was no equipment, that apparently having been shipped to Aden! By a process that remains uncertain, Chris was able to ply his trade in the local US Navy Hospital Laboratory until rumbled by the RAF who then appeared to have shunted him from one meaningless administrative posting to another until the end of the war.

After the war he was welcomed back at the Municipal Laboratory at Luton and appointed Senior Technician. At that time, there were plans for Municipal Laboratories to be taken over by the Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS) and, as promotion in that organisation required one to be a Fellow of the Institute of Medical Laboratory Technology, Chris set about gaining this qualification. To this end, he was faced with the choice of studying haematology, histopathology and clinical chemistry as well as microbiology, no easy matter in his then employment, or submitting a thesis. He chose the latter, and his dissertation was on methods for the culture of mycobacteria. This proved to be a turning point in his career, as in time he was to become an internationally acclaimed expert on tuberculosis bacteriology.

Chris obtained his Fellowship in 1951 and, in the following year, he started work in the PHLS laboratory in the rather surprising venue of London County Hall. This laboratory soon grew into a large and busy one, undertaking a wide range of investigations. In addition to general duties, Chris was able to pursue his special interest in the mycobacteria. In those days, the classification of mycobacteria other than the tubercle and leprosy bacilli was, to say the least, chaotic. Indeed, it was so difficult to allocate isolates from environmental or clinical specimens to a named species that they were often termed ‘anonymous mycobacteria’. Chris brought order into this chaos and, as a result of his published contributions on this subject, was promoted to Senior Technical Officer and, in 1965, he qualified as a Member of the Institute of Biology, a qualification equal to a university degree, and subsequently he was elected a Fellow of that Institute.

The tuberculosis laboratory at County Hall was among the first to be equipped with microbiological safety cabinets and, with characteristic energy and enthusiasm, Chris embarked on a study of such cabinets and laboratory safety in general. He became known in this field through several publications and this led to collaboration with the Safety Officer of the Microbiological Research Establishment at Porton Down and appointment to the Special Programme on Safety in Microbiology of the World Health Organization.

Chris retired in 1985 but this event did nothing to diminish his many scientific activities and interests. Indeed in that same year he was awarded Membership, soon followed by Fellowship, of the Royal College of Pathologists – an honour rarely given to those who are not medically qualified. Then, in the following year, 1986, he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Science, one of the most prestigious awards that any scientist can be given within the university system. In 1972 he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).

If anything, “retirement” led to even more activities and a diversification of his interests.

He was soon appointed a Research Fellow at Kings’ College Hospital and a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the National Heart and Lung Institute, now part of Imperial College School of Medicine. As well as laboratory safety, Chris took a particular interest in clinical waste disposal, blood-borne infections and microbiological diseases of occupations. Such was the esteem in which he is held in these fields that he was appointed to many national and international committees, notably the Working Party on Safety in Biotechnology of the European Federation of Biotechnology.

At the venerable age of 80, and as ever seeking academic pastures new, Chris enrolled at the University of Kent at Canterbury to read for a Master of Arts degree, which was awarded in 2003 for a thesis entitled Cholera and the Sanitary Revolution of Nineteenth Century England. His many friends await with interest his next academic triumph!

In addition to his practical contribution to medical microbiology, notably in the fields of mycobacteria and laboratory safety, producing some 50 scientific papers, Chris has distinguished himself as an author and editor of many books and monographs and, for many years, was co-editor of the Journal for Applied Bacteriology. Perhaps his greatest literary achievements are three books which have all gone into more than one edition. The first of these, Microbiological Methods, was published in 1964 and from the third edition, published in 1970, he was joined by his wife, Patricia Lyne, as co-author. In view of the greatly increasing complexity of microbiology, the sixth edition became the eponymous Collins and Lyne’s Microbiological Methods with several invited contributors. The eighth edition will be published in 2004. His interest in laboratory safety led to the publication of the first edition of Laboratory-acquired Infections in 1983, with the fourth edition appearing in 1999. The third book was Organization and Practice in Tuberculosis Bacteriology, published in 1985 and with a second edition, renamed Tuberculosis Bacteriology – Organization and Practice, in 1997.

Chris was a happy and contented family man. In 1942 he married a cousin, Elizabeth Anne, and they had two sons. In his own words, he and Elizabeth Anne “ … formed a lasting alliance against administration, politics, religion and other dark forces, with all of which we were (and I still am) frequently in conflict”. Elizabeth Anne died in 1966 and, three years later, Chris married Patricia Lyne, a lady highly distinguished in both microbiology and flower arranging, and they had one son.

From: 6th Newsletter of the European Biosafety Association. Volume 3, issue 1, May 2003

Overview of the Chris Collins lectures at the EBSA conferences.