Percy George Shute was born on 16 May 1894 in Honiton, Devon, one of nine children of plumber and house decorator Sidney Thomas Shute (1863 Honiton-1925) and Rose(tta) Helena Leyman (1864 Taunton, Somerset-1936) - they were married in 1883. In 1911 Percy was an apprentice baker, but like many lads of his generation he ended up in the Army and in 1914 he was a Private in the 10th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. By the end of 1915 the 10th Devons were in Salonika and then Percy found himself in Mesopotamia (now mainly part of Iraq). Apart from the usual hazards of warfare, disease - malaria in particular - was a huge problem in that part of the world and Percy was stricken with dysentery, an unfortunate event but one which turned out to have a very significant effect and changed the course of his whole life.
Malaria is caused by bites from mosquitoes infected with microorganisms called Plasmodiums; these organisms travel through the human victim's system to the liver, where they develop and reproduce. Even now prevention is easier than treating the disease itself.
Malaria was a massive problem for all troops serving in Macedonia and the Middle East during the First World War. For example, in Macedonia, between 1916 and 1918, there were 162,512 British admissions to hospital for malaria from an average troop strength of 124,000.
Many soldiers suffering from this disease and others were repatriated and Percy, a victim of dysentery, was one of them, which is how he came to be in the Manor Hospital, Epsom in 1917. Once back on his feet he assisted Sir Ronald Ross in the pathology laboratory, where he learned how to stain malaria parasites and dissect mosquitoes. Staining is an enormously complicated procedure and, rather than attempt to explain it, I will refer you to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leishman_stain for an example. As for dissecting a mosquito, we are extremely fortunate to have a film of the procedure being carried out by Percy himself.
In 1953 the
Wellcome Film Unit recorded Percy Shute demonstrating the classical technique for the dissection of mosquitoes at Horton Hospital, Epsom, Surrey. Video hosted by YouTube
Sir Ronald Ross was in the forefront of malaria research: he had discovered the link between the disease and mosquitoes and had received the Nobel Prize in 1902. Percy could not have had a better teacher.
Malaria cannot be directly transmitted between humans (except between an infected pregnant women and her embryo), but can travel from person to person via blood (e.g.blood transfusions or contaminated syringes) and infected soldiers returning from the War did cause the infection in civilians. In Southern England there were about 500 cases in the civilian population. As soon as he was fully recovered Percy worked at the Royal Army Medical College on the project of eradicating malaria from the civilian population of Southern England; he was subsequently transferred to the Ministry of Health, but even as late as 1926 his official title was merely 'laboratory assistant'.
Julius Wagner-Jauregg was an Austrian working on the therapeutic use of malaria for treatment of General Paralysis of the Insane Percy went to Vienna in 1922 and learned about this treatment from Wagner-Jauregg. When he returned he was involved in the foundation of the Mott Clinic at Horton Hospital and you can read all about the Clinic here.
Percy spent the rest of his working life at the Mott Clinic and was the Assistant Director from 1944 until 1973, when the establishment (by then called the Malaria Reference Laboratory) closed; he was an authority on British mosquitoes and co-authored 'Laboratory Technique for the Study of Malaria' with his long-time colleague, Marjorie Ethel Maryon (1914-2002). He also collaborated on other books and papers with such eminent malariologists as Brigadier John Alexander Sinton VC, OBE, FRS. Sinton had served as a doctor in Mesopotamia in the First World War and was awarded his Victoria Cross for attending to the wounded under heavy fire - he had been shot in both arms and through the side, but carried on with his duties.
Percy does not seem to have been particularly celebrated in the public arena (no Times obituary for example) and a reason for this may be that, despite his research and writings on malaria generally, he was associated with 'British malaria', which most of us would regard as non-existent: however, this was not always so, particularly in areas with salt marshes. As an indigenous (rather than imported) problem it now seems to have been eradicated, but some experts argue that it could return to Britain in the future as a result of climate change (specifically 'global warming'), while others think that medicine has moved on sufficiently to stop it being an issue here again. However, there are other mosquito threats, such as the Asian Tiger Mosquito, which has arrived in Europe and can cause diseases such as yellow fever and dengue fever.
Examples from Percy's correspondence of places where malarial mosquitoes
could be found in Britain, in this instance at the Isle of Grain in Kent. Image source: Wellcome Images
It's easy for us in Britain to be complacent about malaria, since we are unlikely to contract it unless visiting a malarial area overseas without having taken the appropriate preventive medicine. Nevertheless, it is a huge issue in many parts of the world where the disease is endemic, mainly Africa and South-East Asia, and, as with many diseases, the barrier to eradicating, or at least controlling, it is cost. The World Health Organisation estimated that in 2010 there were 219 million cases of malaria, resulting in 660,000 deaths, but the figure vis going down and one of the main reasons for this is fairly simple - the distribution of bed nets impregnated with long-lasting insecticide. To put the cost in perspective, the provision of such nets in all of lowland tropical Africa would be around one-fifth of the sum spent by residents of the USA and Europe on flea treatments for domestic cats.
Children from Mbacke Primary School in Senegal demonstrate the
correct way to hang an insecticide-treated net outside to prevent malaria.
Image source: Antoinette Sullivan/USAID Via Wikimedia Commons.
Percy married Edith Emily Maslin in 1920 at Dorking. Edith was born in Dorking on 22 March 1896, the daughter of a local butcher. There were two children - Gerald Thomas (1922-96) and Pauline (1929-31). Gerald was also a scientist. Edith died on 12 August 1960, by which time the Shutes had moved from Epsom (they lived in Temple Road at one point) to Leatherhead.
Percy died at Leatherhead Hospital on 26 January 1977.