Professor Joe Brownlie, CBE

Doctor of Laws Professor Joe Brownlie

Wednesday 17 July 2013 at 11.15 am - Orator: Professor Joanna Price

Madam Chancellor,

Born in 1944, Joe Brownlie is an early example of the generation of baby boomers who enjoyed many of the advantages that an enlightened State can provide (such as free school milk and free University education), but who, by their subsequent contribution to society, have repaid that debt many times over.

Like Sidney Ricketts who we honoured with this degree last year, Joe Brownlie attended Collyer’s, a direct grant school in Horsham Sussex, which instilled in him the values of the grammar school generation.   Always keen to be around animals, and with early aspirations to be a jockey, the young Joe Brownlie rode a pony for a friend and one day this pony got severe colic.  For the non-vets among you, colic is the equine equivalent of severe stomach cramps that is frequently fatal, and observing this was a traumatic experience for a young boy; the pony was rolling, sweating and clearly was very distressed.  The vet was duly summoned and arrived in his Mercedes, waited for others to open the gate, regally stepped from the car, injected the pony, alleviated the pain and calm was restored.   

Joe Brownlie was mesmerised by this vet, but not because of his apparently magical clinical skills, but because of his very shiny brown shoes that exuded both style and status.  This was a ‘Eureka moment’; from that time onwards he was determined to become a vet with an important car and expensive footwear.  Joe Brownlie has scrubbed up quite well for this ceremony, but in reality his shoes are rarely shiny and his mode of transport is a rather battered Volkswagen Passat because you can get bags of cement in the back.  

Inspired by these shoes Joe Brownlie studied hard at school and entered Bristol Veterinary School in 1962 where he joined a year of 30. In those days it was not thought worth educating too many women for such a male oriented career, and only 6 were female. Academic standards were high and unforgiving (extenuating circumstances committees had never been dreamt of), and of the 30 starters only 19 qualified.  I have been fortunate enough to attend ‘year of ‘66’ reunions, and his contemporaries remember Joe fondly as a ‘Tigger like’ character who asked too many questions at the end of the lectures when everyone else was ready to go for coffee.  Remarkably of those 19 who qualified in 1966, six became professors and Joe Brownlie is the third of them to have been recognised by the State with a CBE and by this University with and Honorary Doctorate of Science.  George Poste, the first of these three, became head of Glaxo Welcome and is now an advisor to president Obama.  Bristol Vet School clearly was a very exciting place in the 1960’s and the year of ‘66 were a driven and competitive bunch who thrived in an environment that encouraged independent thinking.

On qualifying, like many of his contemporaries, Joe Brownlie realised that there was more to veterinary science than clinical practice and he joined the University of Reading to do a PhD on “The isolation and characterisation of antimicrobial proteins from bovine milk”.From there he joined the Institute of Animal Health at Compton but soon afterwards was awarded a Royal Society Fellowship to visit the John Curtin Medical School in Australia where he worked alongside inspiring role models such as Peter Doherty, the only veterinary Nobel Laureate, and Ralph Zinkernagel.  These men, and his experience in Australia, changed his view of the world.  It was therefore a rather reluctant Joe Brownlie who returned to Compton where he remained until 1995 when he moved to the Royal Veterinary College, London. In addition to carving out his scientific career, during those 20 plus years he rebuilt a house in his spare moments and had three children, who are all carving out very successful careers.   His son Tom is a vet and, following in father’s footsteps, an academic.

The manner of this transfer from Compton to the RVC is a matter of both interest and debate. Looking to move on from the Institute of Animal Health he naturally turned to his alma mater, Bristol, which professed an interest in recruiting him and (he thought) rather begrudgingly interviewed him.  However, no job offer appeared in the post or anywhere else.  Unfortunately for Bristol, shortly after this he bumped into a former contemporary, by then Principal of the Royal Veterinary College and within a week an offer of a Chair in Veterinary Pathology was made and accepted.  Joe Brownlie’s account of events is that the RVC were driven to make a significant scientific catch, the Principal’s account is that this was an act of personal charity for a destitute colleague. The rest, as they say is history, and since 1995 Joe Brownlie has pursued his extraordinarily productive career from the RVC.

This productivity has been confined, although its extent makes that word seem inappropriate, to the study of infectious disease.  Most notably, bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD).  Joe Brownlie is now acknowledged across the globe as being the first person to unravel the complex pathogenesis of this crippling mucosal disease and the story behind how he came to work on BVD is fascinating.  Walter Plowright, another giant of veterinary infectious diseases, had the idea that BVD may have an immunological basis and when Joe Brownlie stepped off the boat from Australia Walter gave him a year to ‘go away and try and prove this’.  It is hard to imagine that this freedom could be offered a young post doctoral researcher today, but Walter Plowright’s faith in Joe Brownlie was rewarded, because he discovered something completely novel; that the virus infected the foetus which initially tolerated its presence, but the virus was adaptable and mutated meaning that the foetus’s immune system no longer recognise it and the foetus was killed. 

This ground breaking work eventually led to the development of a BVD vaccine ‘Bovidec’, which is a ‘gold standard’ used globally with remarkable success. A second marker vaccine is also currently in development.  Joe Brownlie has also developed two canine vaccines, having been approached by two major dog’s homes to investigate the growing problem of kennel cough, a sometimes fatal respiratory disease.  Joe’s response was to assemble a multidisciplinary research team who discovered a new canine respiratory coronavirus and novel associations between bacteria and mycoplasma in this complex disease.  Vaccines trials are now being conducted based on this research.  

It is rare for an academic to carry a research programme from fundamental discovery through to development of a clinical treatment.  Joe Brownlie, by his career’s end, will have done this four times! Historically, applied research that makes a real difference to society has not always been as highly valued in University circles as more fundamental ground breaking science.  However, a new word has become part of the vocabulary of 21st century pro-vice chancellors for research; ‘Impact’.  Like every UK University, Bristol is currently engaged in the Research Excellence Framework, which will decide how much money it will get from the government to support our research activities.  For the first time research with ‘impact’ will have a price tag on its head, and Joe Brownlie’s work which has gone from the fundamental to vaccine development will make an impact case study that any University would die for, and from which the RVC will benefit!

Joe Brownlie has also worked on exotic and emerging diseases including Foot and Mouth, Bluetongue, Rinderpest and Schmallenbergy virus. These emerging diseases represent a major threat to human and animal health, with one new human disease appearing every 8 months, of which 80% come from farm animals. It is vital that vets play a key role in tackling them, but encouraging young veterinary graduates into research careers is challenging.  However, typical of Joe Brownlie, he has also taken steps to address this problem by establishing a pioneering intercalated degree course in Veterinary Pathology at the RVC. This research-rich course was developed in partnership with the Wellcome Trust and has attracted the brightest and best veterinary undergraduates from all UK vet Schools.  Of the 100 graduates, over 80% have gone on to undertake PhDs.

As well as being an inspiring researcher, educator and role model, Joe Brownlie’s wider contributions to society have been exceptional.  Probably one of his most important roles has been to act as the veterinary expert member of Professor Sir David King’s Foresight programme on ‘Detection and Identification of Infectious Diseases’.  The need for a ‘One Medicine’ approach has been a major component of this program and has had considerable impact at the highest level.  Another outcome has been the development of the Southern African Centre for infectious Diseases and Surveillance (SACIDS) of which Joe Brownlie is a Director.

Recently he has been made Chairman of Trustees of the Institute of Animal Health, and in that position is overseeing the redevelopment of the institute as a national resource for veterinary science and surveillance focusing on viral diseases of livestock and those of zoonotic importance. 

These numerous contributions have rightfully been recognised with numerous awards and honours.  He is a Fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, a Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists, a Fellow of Royal Agricultural Societies, and a recipient of the Selbourne and RASE Research Medals and the BVA centenary award. 

However, possibly the greatest contribution that Joe Brownlie has made, has been his commitment to co-ordinate and deliver programmes on BVDV control across the world.  He has been unstinting in his commitment to travel to conferences, to veterinary practices and to farmers meetings to engage and educate groups in disease control, often without being paid a penny in expenses. The 21st Century descriptor for this type of activity is, of course, ‘public engagement in science’. 

It is therefore fitting that when I asked Joe Brownlie how he would like to be remembered, he said it would be as ‘someone who didn’t just sit in his office’.   I also asked him what advice he would give to a vet graduating today, and it was that long term career satisfaction comes from taking time to increase your knowledge and skills, aspire to become better qualified and don’t expect to have ‘a proper job’ by the time you are 30.   My hope is that in 47 years time some of you, like Joe Brownlie, will be still pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge.   I also hope that Joe Brownlie does not think he is ready to retire to his fairytale cottage in Devon with his wife Harriet, here with him today, but will come back to Bristol and finally get a ‘proper job’!

Madame Chancellor-this occasion is an opportunity to celebrate Joe Bownlie’s remarkable career, that was launched here in Bristol and has been marked by those traditional features of a successful scientist; curiosity, passion and enthusiasm for their subject, the desire to inspire others, perseverance, and long-term occupation of an important and rewarding scientific niche. As such he stands as an example to all those graduating today and is eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa. 


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