William (Bill) Snowdon – A tribute for AAHL’s Founding Chief

September 29th, 2020

Bill joined the virology section of the CSIRO Division of Animal Health based in Parkville, Melbourne in 1959, and over 30 years, became not only an expert in exotic diseases of livestock, but also in the infrastructure and microbiological requirements for building a maximum-security laboratory allowing research into the most dangerous infectious agents in the world.

He graduated from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Veterinary Science (Honours 2nd class) in January 1949 and worked as a Veterinary Officer with the Livestock Division of the Victorian Department of Agriculture for ten years until he joined CSIRO.

One of the first jobs that Bill undertook in CSIRO, along with his colleagues, was to determine what diseases were present in Australian livestock. Once this was established, he investigated several pathogens in detail, including sporadic bovine encephalomyelitis, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis, mucosal disease, bovine malignant catarrh, swine fever and bovine ephemeral fever.

The introduction of swine fever into Australia and its subsequent eradication turned Bill’s interest to important livestock diseases that were exotic to Australia. The highlight of this interest was a two-year period at the Animal Virus Research Institute at Pirbright in England. During this time, Bill developed and patented a tissue culture system using calf thyroid cells, still accepted as the most sensitive method for isolating foot and mouth disease (FMD) virus from infected animals in field situations.

Working at Pirbright involved changing-in and showering-out as part of microbiological security. Never one to concern himself with formalities, Bill, who lived in an Institute house only a couple of hundred yards from the laboratory, would wander over early in the morning in his pyjamas and dressing gown and take his shower in the changing rooms!

Bill had extraordinary skills in his interactions with people, particularly as a leader. In 1970, he was appointed Leader of CSIRO’s Virology Section in what was now called the Animal Health Research Laboratory. At the same time, he took up the job as Leader of the Proposal Evaluation Team that was formed to investigate the feasibility and costs of building a maximum-security laboratory capable of handling any of the exotic diseases of livestock.

The Proposal Evaluation Team provided a weighty report to Cabinet in October 1972 and in April 1974, Cabinet approved the establishment of AAHL on the Geelong Rifle Range.

With the official approval to build a state-of-the art biocontainment facility, Bill took on the role of Officer-in-Charge of ANAHL, an unfortunate acronym later changed to AAHL and consequently managed the complex job of planning the construction of the lab. He was responsible for determining the microbiological security requirements for the building and translating them for the design, construction and commissioning teams involved in the project. This was not just a copy of existing international infectious disease laboratories. It was by far the most sophisticated and microbiologically secure laboratory anywhere in the world and became the benchmark for future high containment laboratories. This was undoubtedly driven by Bill, with his knowledge of microbiology complemented by anticipation of debate over importation of exotic pathogens. Without Bill’s negotiating skills, AAHL may never have proceeded to construction.

The Australian Animal Health Laboratory was officially opened in 1985 and Bill became the Foundation Chief of this new world-class laboratory, progressing it from an engineering triumph to a scientific institution of high merit.

Even as Chief, Bill never used the title of Dr, or ever allowed it to be used on his behalf and, and when the laboratory opened, Bill parked in the ordinary staff car park. There were to be no elite parking arrangements for him.

Bill was, of course, very proud of AAHL, but he never lost sight of the fact that the most important part of the building was the people themselves and the staff knew this. He never forgot a name and made it his mission to know everyone on-site in all roles.

Bill was Chief for four years until his retirement in 1989 and although retired, he was never a stranger and he remained part of the broader AAHL community until his death. His office, which has a beautiful outlook, is now used for meetings and is known as the “Snowdon Room”.

In the 1990’s, AAHL launched a biennial lecture series named in honour of Bill, called the Snowdon Oration, which has attracted many world leading scientists and veterinarians over the past two decades.

During his retirement, in 2007, he published a book about the establishment of AAHL called “Consultation, Conflict, Cooperation and Controversy”. The title provides some insight into the complex and challenging process of steering the project through State and Federal politics and against opposition from some academic circles. Clearly, Bill’s determination and interpersonal skills were key factors in navigating this lengthy project, from its inception in 1962, to opening in 1985 and then managing its operation until 1989.

His dedication to CSIRO and AAHL leaves a strong legacy, both to the Australian animal health industry and the staff at AAHL, who continue to benefit from his vision and tenacity.

He will be remembered as an extraordinary man who was a visionary, decisive, principled and caring leader.