Be inspired by the Holbeach pioneers

The bench dedicated to Walter Plowright
The bench dedicated to Walter Plowright
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In 2014 I wrote in this column about my son, Rory, leaving home to start university. Those three years are now up, he has completed a degree in politics and is ready to go out into the world of work.

Although Dougie is from Edinburgh and I’m from Newcastle, Rory is a Holbeach boy. And that’s a pretty good place to be born and bred, if you look at the heritage benches which now take pride of place in the grounds of All Saints Church in Holbeach.

The smart new benches celebrate the lives of four distinguished men of Holbeach including George Farmer, founder of Holbeach’s first free school; William Stukeley, pioneering antiquarian and Norman Angel, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

There’s a fourth bench, dedicated to Walter Plowright. Who was he and why does he deserve such recognition? Plowright was born in Holbeach in 1923, the son of Jonathan and Mahala Plowright. He attended Moulton Grammar School which transferred to Spalding Grammar School in 1939.

After graduating from the Royal Veterinary College he was commissioned into the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. Working in Kenya and Nigeria, he developed a vaccine to eradicate cattle plague, rinderpest, which the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) claimed was just as important as smallpox.

It’s hard to overstate how vital his work proved to be. When the disease entered Africa at the end of the 19th century it killed millions of cattle, causing starvation of thousands who depended on cattle for food or for pulling a plough or cart.

Plowright realised that rinderpest in the local cattle in Kenya was caused by a virus carried by wildebeest. If the disease could be eradicated from wildebeest, the problem would be solved.

One of his colleagues, Frank Dobson, said: “Surely, no one is going to go out there to wrestle with wild buffalo and inoculate a quarter of a million of them – but Walter Plowright did!”

Plowright made his breakthrough in 1960 and rinderpest was brought under control, although it reappeared when the vaccination programme was halted too early. The Plowright vaccine had a huge impact on the world’s food supply. His methods were replicated by his colleagues to vaccinate against other animal diseases.

Returning to the UK in 1964, Plowright continued his work into viral animal diseases. He was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Society of London and in 1999 was the first Briton to receive the World Food Prize, on the recommendation of the FAO.

He died in 2010, the same year that the FAO announced that field activities to control rinderpest could be stopped as the last case had been seen in 2001. The formal declaration of its eradication occurred in 2011.

So, my son, I’d just like to say, as you leave your home town of Holbeach for pastures new, be inspired by these distinguished former residents.

You don’t have to win a Nobel Prize or alleviate the world’s food supplies, but do something good, try and make a difference and make your mother proud.

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