Professor Denny Mitchison, who has been tackling tuberculosis (TB) for the last 70 years, retired this summer. His work has led to the saving of millions of lives.


calendar-icon 15 September 2015

TB is a very serious bacterial infection which is spread through inhaling tiny droplets from the coughs or sneezes of an infected person. It has claimed millions of lives.

Professor Mitchison first became involved with tackling the disease in the UK in the 1940s. The illness then was a common cause of death in the UK, and Professor Mitchison was involved in the first Medical Research Council study to look at a possible treatment with streptomycin. This was the first randomised clinical trial (RCT) in medicine.

In 1964, he was appointed the head of the MTC (mycobacterium tuberculosis complex) TB Unit at the Hammersmith Hospital in London. With Professor Wallace Fox, he carried out the most famous series of randomised clinical trials - the MRC TB trials - in many countries.

His major contributions were the development of modern TB combination therapy to prevent the emergence of resistance. In addition, he shortened the duration of therapy from 18 months to six months. This meant that more patients adhered to treatment and so more were cured.

Professor Anthony Coates, Professor of Medical Microbiology, said: “Let it never be forgotten that he also developed regimens which were affordable to the poorest of the poor in developing countries.

“His legacy lives on in the lives of millions of people who have been saved by following his treatment regimens.”

Professor Mitchison was given a reception as a farewell by many of the staff in the Institute for Infection and Immunity. Institute director Professor Julian Ma spoke with fondness about his colleague.

Professor Mitchison moved to St George's, University of London in 1994 and remained active here over many areas of TB research, locally and internationally.

He has been a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Global Alliance for TB Drug Discovery.

Collectively, the TB research community and indeed the world have much to celebrate, recognising more than 65 years of the significant scientific and medical achievements of Professor Mitchison.

Now, Professor Mitchison says that London and major cities in the UK are once again facing a TB epidemic. He says he finds this “frustrating”, but a consequence of increased drug resistance to antibiotics among patients coming to the UK who have acquired the disease from their home countries.