Obituary – Ron Smithers

Ron Smithers, parasitologist.

Born July 18th, 1926, died February 22nd, 2021, aged 94.

Ron Smithers (S.R. Smithers as he appeared on his more than 100 scientific publications) dedicated his professional life to furthering the understanding of the host-parasite relationship of human schistosomes. He served as the Head of Division of Parasitology at the UK´s premier research organization, the former National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill between 1971 to his retirement in 1987.

Ron was born in Islington in 1926 before moving with his parents to Twickenham where he spent the whole of his childhood, including the years of the blitz! He attended Thames Valley Grammar where he excelled in all sports and met his wife to be Eileen Smith who was also a talented sportswoman. He undertook his National Service in the RAF, where he was a Physical Training Instructor before going on to Bristol University to read Zoology and play hockey for the University 1st team. He graduated with 1st Class Honours in 1952, the same year he married Eileen.

Ron Smithers embarked on his lifelong career in parasitology working at the London Zoo where he discovered two new parasite species in resident animals as described in his first two publications, an extraordinary start to what turned out to be a brilliant research career. He then undertook three years of field work in The Gambia mapping the ecology of human schistosomiasis caused by Schistosoma mansoni and haematobium, the parasites that were to be the focus of the rest of his research career. In 1958 he was awarded his Ph.D. and joined the NIMR working under Frank Hawking, father of the renowned astrophysicist Sir Stephen Hawking, where he remained for the rest of his career.

Ron´s research career is notable for its focus, logical progression and constant incorporation of novel technical approaches to understanding the basis of the immunological relationship of Schistosoma mansoni with its definitive host, an area in which he was international renowned. His initial publications pioneered techniques for the laboratory maintenance of the parasite life cycle, a process for which he took personal responsibility in the laboratory until his retirement. He quickly began to explore central immunological aspects of schistosome infection, establishing the existence of acquired protective immunity, the role of different life cycle stages in stimulating this immunity and the protective effect of irradiated cercariae published in Nature in 1962.

After receiving his D.Sc. in 1969, Ron Smithers published the first of several papers in 1975 that reported the fundamentally important and previously unreported phenomenon of host antigen acquisition by the maturing schistosome as a mechanism of avoiding recognition by the host immune response, a remarkable discovery. In parallel he embarked on a detailed dissection of effector mechanisms of protective immunity focusing on the role of antibodies and culminating in the generation of some of the first monoclonal antibodies  raised against schistosomes, the detailed molecular characterization of the antigens they recognized on the immature parasite surface and eventually the cloning of the genes that encode them in the 1980s. Much of his latter research effort was spent demonstrating the ability of antigens shared between the tegument of the adult worm and the invading schistosomula to serve as the basis of an anti-schistosome vaccine, a pivotal concept that has recently culminated in clinical trials.

Smithers´ research strategy was to maintain a superb parasite life cycle, provide a friendly and relaxed research environment and attract talented younger scientists specialized in disparate research areas of immunology, biochemistry and molecular biology to join his quest to understand how the remarkable blood dwelling schistosome can simultaneously stimulate and avoid protective immunity. His bibliography is noteworthy for its early inclusion of a series of technical advances in the study of the parasite demonstrating the breath of his thinking, flexibility and multidisciplinary approach. Ron was a modest and understated man who exhibited a quiet warmth to his colleagues and who was both accepting and non-judgemental. He was exemplary in his willingness to give his young colleagues full credit for the work in his laboratory and helped launch the careers of a large number of parasitologists still active in many parts of the world.

In addition to his lifelong dedication to science, Ron was also a devoted family man. He took great pleasure  in watching sport particularly Arsenal FC, where he held a season ticket well into his mid-80s, Middlesex CC and in later years Saracens Rugby – for whom his eldest son Tim played in the 70s and 80s. Both Tim and his younger brother Nick have successful careers in the UK health care industry. Eileen, a primary school teacher and Ron’s marital partner of 69 years predeceased him by 6 months. Ron spent a long and fulfilling retirement surrounded by family and friends, occupying his time with numerous hobbies and interests. He is survived by his sons, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

The BSP Council send their condolences to the family and friends of Ron at this difficult time.