Between two worlds
What started out as research for a school project has ended up in a book deal for a Black British student of Caribbean heritage.
Gaia Goffe, daughter of BBC Caribbean correspondent Leslie Goffe, was given an assignment to write a paper on someone who has inspired her.
She chose a late cousin, a pioneering Black British physician, of Jamaican background.
Gaia looked at the role of Dr Alan Goffe in the development of vaccines against polio and measles.
Edited book extract
Few people know of the vital role a black British scientist played in the development of vaccines against measles and polio.
Alongside medical pioneers Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin there was Alan Powell Goffe.
Salk was the American scientist who came up with the first effective vaccine to fight the deadly polio virus in 1956.
Sabin created an equally important polio vaccine of his own.
Goffe, whose roots are Jamaican, helped develop and refine the sometimes dangerous vaccines, making them safe for use by millions of people around the world.
The British-born son of a black Jamaican father and a white English mother - both physicians, Goffe was one of the UK’s most respected microbiologists in the 1950s and 1960s.
He was almost certainly the only black man to play a prominent role in the world of research science in Britain at the time.
Apart from his work on the polio virus, Goffe also did pioneering work on what was called “the greatest killer of children in history,” the measles virus.
The ultimate accolade?
So important was this black British scientist’s work in this field, a type of the measles virus was named the ‘Goffe Strain’ after him.
Alan Goffe’s death on August 13, 1966, aged only 46, was all the more tragic because he died at such a young age.
He had slipped, fell into the sea and was swept away and never found while sailing off southern England.
The world had lost one of the most brilliant scientists of his generation.
His accomplishments were such that The Times newspaper dedicated a moving tribute to him days after his death.
It eulogised: “His untimely death is therefore the more tragic, for one will never know what his outstanding talents would have contributed to science.”
Goffe was also one of the first scientists to conduct full-scale studies of the human wart virus, which was recently discovered to be a cause of cervical cancer.
In 2006, the US Federal Drug Administration(FDA) approved a vaccine that now allows young girls to be immunised against the human wart virus before they become sexually active.
Had Alan Goffe lived, he would almost certainly have played a role in the development of this vaccine.
His death was a great loss to his family, his friends, and his colleagues.
But Alan Goffe’s loss would have also been felt, in some strange way, by black people eager to prove that it was possible to succeed despite discrimination.
Indeed, he refuted by his achievements, the view that people of African descent were intellectually inferior to whites.
Though Alan Goffe’s life was short, it was nonetheless filled with great discoveries and important breakthroughs.
He was not concerned only with science and technology.
Goffe was a political person who was an early member of several important organizations, among them the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Freedom From Hunger.
He was also a member of the United Nations Association and was at one time a member of the British Communist Party.
Thanks to Alan Goffe and other scientists, cases of poliomyelitis are rarely heard of in the developed world anymore.
In fact, the Western hemisphere was declared all but free of wild polio strains in 1991.
Though cases still exist in the developing world, they are getting much rarer.
Officials at the World Health Organisation said recently they hope the war on polio will eradicate the disease in the very near future.
Extracted and edited from Between Two Worlds: The Story of Black British Scientist Alan Goffe by Gaia Goffe
(Published by Hansib Books, London on Friday 1 August, 2008)