Retired microbiologist Hugh Pennington is probably Aberdeen’s most famous adopted son since being propelled into the international spotlight 13 years ago in the wake of the tragic E.coli outbreak in Wishaw, Lanarkshire, which claimed 20 lives.
Now, the emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University is the man everyone turns to if they want to find out more about health and food safety scares, ranging from swine flu to MRSA or BSE.
Pennington officially retired from the university in 2003 and finally gave up his office at Foresterhill earlier this year. But, sitting in the book-lined front room of his west end home in the Granite City, Prof. Pennington, 71, admitted: “I have never worked harder in my life than I am doing right now. Bugs are my life and they are doing well.”
His ease and expertise in dealing with the media make him an obvious choice for anyone in newspapers, television or radio seeking a scientific explanation stripped down to simple layman’s terms.
Surprisingly, the seeds for that unexpected media career were first sown 55 years ago when, as a pupil at the Lancaster Royal Grammar School in Lancashire, he appeared on the BBC Children’s Hour programme. The then 16-year-old Hugh was curator of the school museum, looking after a wonderful collection of stuffed birds and animals, ranging from a tiny shrew to an elephant’s head, all of which had been donated by former pupils.
He was following in the footsteps of famous LRGS old boys, such as the naturalist Sir Richard Owen and the carpenter-turned-scientist William Whewell. While other boys collected cigarette cards to swop, the young Pennington collected dead flies.
He explained: “I was never interested in studying classics, which was the mainstay of the school; I was more interested in biology and natural history. But I didn’t really want to collect butterflies or moths. Flies were more interesting and more specialised”.
It is an interest he maintains to this very day, specialising in hover flies which mimic bees and wasps, and flies which inhabit funghi. He has a collection of more than 500 flies and points out there are 6000 different types in the UK. He is particularly proud of discovering one new type of fly first, in England in 1957, then again in Scotland in the 1970s.
That fascination with delving into the unusual has always underpinned his life. Born in 1938 in Edgeware, Middlesex, he has a twin sister Ruth, who still lives in Lancaster. Their father was a landscape architect, whose firm designed the stunning grounds for the League of Nations headquarters in Geneva.
They moved to Lancaster when their father’s London offices were destroyed by German bombers during World War 2 and Pennington’s cosmopolitan accent still retains its Lancashire roots, despite his having lived more than half his life in Scotland.
He went to St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School in London with the aim of becoming a pathologist, rather than a GP or a surgeon, but ended up in microbiology as an assistant in bacteriology to professor Ronald Hare, who had been Sir Alexander Fleming’s assistant when the great man discovered penicillin in 1928.
Hare was also renowned for his work in helping find a cure for the killer peurperal fever, also known as childbed fever, which struck down mothers during or after childbirth.
Working alongside him, Pennington became involved in virology, working on viruses, including bird flu in the early 1960s, long before it became such a hot topic today.
Prof. Pennington said: “In those days we used to get it by the gallon and never wondered about it infecting people, because nobody suspected then.”
By now married to Carolyn, a nurse at St Thomas’s with Fife roots, the newlywed Pennington decided to up sticks after 10 years at St Thomas’s and head for America in 1968 to chase the scientific holy grail in Madison at the University of Wisconsin.
He said: “Anybody who wanted to be a scientist had to go abroad and Wisconsin was one of the top places with people who had won Nobel prizes.
“It was very, very different. It had top scientists plus a professor of marching bands! But the football team was hopeless because the university insisted the players earned their scholarships academically, unlike other universities, which didn’t care.”
After a year, he fancied doing research work on insects in the tropics in Gambia, but lack of vacancies saw him end up at the Glasgow Institute of Virology instead.
Prof. Pennington admitted: “It was less of a shock. It was the glory days of research when you didn’t have to apply for grants and the lab got everything it asked for. It was really fantastic working there.”
He worked on smallpox and other viruses in Glasgow for 10 years until 1979, when he was appointed the Chair of Bacteriology in Aberdeen, walking straight into cuts in university funding, which forced drastic action with staff leaving.
“It was a really tough time,” he confessed. “The first year saw 20% cuts and a lot of people had to take early retirement. I was dealing a lot with the administration side, as well as my research.”
Despite that, the father of two realised he finally found the place where he was most content in his research, combined with a spell as dean of the medical school between 1987 and 1992. However, all that changed in November 1996 with the Wishaw E.coli outbreak claiming the lives of 20 elderly people who had eaten contaminated meat from a butcher at a church lunch club.
The then Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth set up an inquiry and Pennington’s expertise in microbiology made him an obvious choice as chairman. His report, known now as Pennington 1, produced a raft of recommendations, which were accepted, including the formation of the Food Standards Agency, to prevent a similar outbreak.
But another E.coli outbreak in south Wales in 2005, saw 157 children infected through school meals, with one five-year-old dying.
Prof. Pennington chaired a £2.3 million public inquiry into the outbreak and produced his report – known as Pennington 2 – earlier this year. He blamed a local butcher for the outbreak. The butcher was jailed for a year for public hygiene offences. The professor said: “It showed that the lessons of Wishaw had not been learned. After two reports, I sincerely hope I never have a hat trick”.
He is now regarded as the UK’s top bug buster and a quiet week will see him conduct 20 or so media interviews around the world.
Combined with giving talks at conferences around the country, it seems highly unlikely that he has any time to himself. He can be found relaxing, however, at the family’s weekend retreat in Whitehills, near Banff on the shores of the Moray Firth, where he faces a battle of a different sort in trying to maintain a seaside garden.
The professor said: “I usually go there most weekends; it has a small garden at the back, but being right next to the sea it is very difficult to keep. It is also nice to mow the grass because you can think while you do it”.
Books are another love of his life – particularly medical science books from years past – and the hundreds of tomes lining his home pay testament to that. He will always be found browsing second-hand book stores wherever he is attending a lecture or conference. Writing is another interest; his book, When Food Kills, was published in 2003 and he is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books.
Swine flu has dominated his life this summer, with a constant demand on him for media information as the world waits to see if the pandemic will spread out of control. He has first-hand knowledge for in 1957, during a previous outbreak, he was struck down with influenza when he was a medical student in London and spent almost a week suffering in bed.
“I remember it so clearly, I went out for a walk on the Embankment and got infected before I got back. It was that easy.”
He added: “There are two big questions on this outbreak: Will it come back again later this year and will it go for older folk then, which it hasn’t done up until now? That’s what it did in 1957”.
Whether dispensing flu advice or simply telling us how to wash our hands properly and not pick our noses, the professor is rarely out of the spotlight.
And he is undoubtably proud of being an adopted Aberdonian as he proved during an appearance on Desert Island Discs in July when one of his records was Neeps Tae Pluck, sung by George Elrick at the city’s Tivoli Theatre.
The professor confessed: “Aberdeen is a great place. I love the architecture and I love the fact that the city is big, but not too big. It is a wonderful place to live”.
Meanwhile, in between all the demands for media interviews, there are still books he wants to write, if he can find the time. He explained: “I like writing about real things, which I find much more interesting than trying to write a thriller”.
You get the distinct feeling that the book on Hugh Pennington will not be closed for some considerable time yet.
A former Aberdeen Bureau chief of the Daily Record, Bob Dow has been reporting from the city for the last 28 years.Tweet
This is an article from the September 2009 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.