Chris Curtis, 1939-2008

September 25, 2008

Chris Curtis, an internationally renowned medical entomologist who pioneered new ways of combating malaria and other tropical diseases, has died.

Born in Oxshott, Surrey, on 25 September 1939, he studied at the University of Oxford, obtained a PhD in the genetics of fungi from the University of Edinburgh and soon began to seek practical applications for the techniques of chromosomal translocation. After six years at the University of Bristol, however, his career suffered a setback when he took a post with a World Health Organisation unit in New Delhi, which was shut down following unsubstantiated claims that it was carrying out research on biological weapons.

In 1976, Professor Curtis moved to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), which remained his base until his death - although he spent as much time in the field, notably in Tanzania, as he did in his London lab. Despite retiring five years ago, he continued teaching right up until the time of his unexpected collapse.

His colleague Christopher Whitty, director of the Malaria Centre at the LSHTM, remembers him as "an extremely inspiring teacher" notable for his "enthusiasm and ability to put very complex ideas across simply". His research was "both methodologically rigorous and linked to advocacy for the poorest people in Africa: the widespread use of insecticide-treated bednets for malaria can, in part, be put down to his science and advocacy."

A firm believer in straightforward, low-tech methods of disease control, Professor Curtis demonstrated, for example, the effectiveness of using small pieces of expanded polystyrene to trap mosquito larvae on the surface of latrines and other insanitary bodies of water. On one occasion he had the misfortune to fall in, though this only led to an oft-repeated joke that he had been "not so much swimming as going through the motions".

Yet his main achievement was establishing bednets as a leading tool for coping with malaria. He argued forcefully, and then demonstrated in field trials, that this did not require universal coverage to be effective - nets would trap mosquitoes and thereby protect neighbours as well, even when it proved difficult to provide them to the whole village.

Along with this went a firm commitment to the notion that such nets should be provided free - a case Professor Curtis argued to a parliamentary meeting not long before he died. It has proved influential in many countries and to several large donors. Overall, the campaign has resulted in free provision of about 50 million treated nets. Since this was accompanied by increased commitment to, and funding for, the fight against malaria, it amounts to a huge contribution to African public health.

Professor Curtis is survived by his wife, Jill.

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