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Twort, Frederick William

bacteria twort’s agent cultures

(1877–1950) British microbiologist: discovered first virus infection of bacteria (bacteriophage).

Qualifying in medicine in London in 1900, Twort became a professor of bacteriology there in 1919; he was eccentric and reclusive. In 1915 when studying staphylococci he noticed that some cultures became transparent, and he traced the effect to an agent which was infecting the cocci. He offered several possible explanations for the effect, including virus action, and planned to continue the work, but army service in the First World War interrupted him and he did not take it up again, but expended much effort in an attempt to show that pathogenic bacteria were descendants of non-pathogenic types. In 1917 F H d’Herelle (1873–1949) found a similar result with some mixed cultures of dysentery bacilli, and named the infective agent bacteriophage (‘phage’); vigorous dispute on priority followed, which was not resolved until adjudication (in Twort’s favour) by one Professor Flu of Leiden in the 1930s. Twort’s laboratory and records were entirely destroyed by German bombs in 1944. Since the 1950s, these viruses which infect bacteria have been much studied; many strains exist, and some have proved of great value in genetic engineering.

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