Henry Bedson was the second son of Sir Sam Bedson FRS, of Hove, who had been professor of bacteriology at the London Hospital. His paternal grandfather, Peter Philips Bedson, was professor of chemistry at Newcastle. Bedson’s mother was Dorothea Annie Hoffert PhD, who worked on aeroplane dopes and subsequently did research on oils and fats at the Lister Institute. His maternal grandfather was Henry Hoffert, a senior inspector of schools. Bedson was educated at Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School, and entered the London Medical College where he was awarded the Charrington prize for anatomical dissection, and received honorary certificates of distinction in the 2nd MB examination, and the clinical surgery prize examinations. He qualified in 1952.
Bedson became house physician to Bomford and Heson, and house surgeon to Perry and Tresidder. In 1953 he became house officer in morbid anatomy and in clinical pathology, and in 1954 junior registrar in pathology. He joined the RAMC in 1955 and served in Hong Kong until July 1957. During this period he became a junior specialist in pathology, working in a small military hospital; he was also part-time demonstrator in morbid anatomy at the University of Hong Kong. 1957 saw him back again at the London Hospital as first assistant to the medical professorial unit. He received his MRCP in the following year and was elected FRCP in 1978.
In 1958 he embarked on his virological career and was appointed John W Garrett research fellow in the department of bacteriology at the University of Liverpool. In 1959 he became assistant lecturer, and after one year was appointed a full lecturer. In 1964 he moved to the department of virology, University of Birmingham, being appointed senior lecturer and honorary NHS consultant in bacteriology and virology. He became reader in virology in 1969, and in 1976 professor and head of the reconstituted department of medical microbiology. He was in that post at the time of his death.
Bedson developed an interest in poxviruses while he was in AW Downie’s department in Liverpool. At that time smallpox was still an important disease in many parts of the world and, together with KR Dumbell, Bedson examined the effects of temperature on the growth of poxviruses. This led to the introduction of discriminating but robust tests for distinguishing various poxviruses, particularly between variola major and minor. There followed an analysis of the phenotypic characters of variola by the use of recombinant viruses in the rabbit. For this work Bedson was awarded the MD degree in 1964.
At Birmingham Bedson continued his work with poxviruses, driving his investigation to a far deeper level and obtaining biochemical explanations for the properties of some poxviruses. As the WHO eradication programme became effective the problems to be solved changed too. By 1977 natural smallpox appeared extinct, but newly discovered viruses had been isolated from rodents which are indistinguishable from variola major in the laboratory. Bedson’s final work was the investigation of these strains, and it forms a most important contribution to the smallpox eradication scheme and the science of virology. Bedson was a member of the International Commission for the assessment of smallpox eradication in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1976, and of the WHO informal group on monkeypox and related viruses.
His special interest led indirectly to the tragic end of his life. A fatal case of smallpox occurred in a person who worked in another part of the same building in Birmingham. Journalists launched a relentless effort to fix the blame on him and his staff for a breach of technique, and union officials stirred up public fears by confusing the issues with those then arising from genetic manipulation. Harassed as the chosen ‘villain’ of the tragedy, Henry Bedson’s normally stable personality broke down and he took his own life. It could be said that he was a victim of his own dedicated conscientiousness, and of his extreme sense of responsibility.
Henry Bedson was a medical academic with the highest standards. He had a fine analytical mind and was a useful editorial board member of the Journal of General Virology. He took his teaching very seriously and his work was always thoroughly organized. He was a quiet man with a taste for trout fishing (at which he excelled) and cricket.
In 1961 Bedson married Ann Patricia, daughter of Eric James Ducker of Bramhope, near Otley, Yorkshire. They had three children; a son and two daughters.
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme
[Brit.med.J., 7., 1978, 2, 840, 904; Lancet, 1978, 2, 641, 799; Times, 1 Sept 1978]