Joseph Pawan (6th Sep 1887 - 3 Nov 1957)

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Joseph Pawan was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad in 1887 to Aloysius Pawan, an immigrant from the island of Palawan in the Philippines, and his wife who was of French origin. He gained a College Exhibition scholarship and attended St. Mary’s College where he won an Island Scholarship, coming first in the world in Latin. In 1907, he entered the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, graduating with his Bachelor in Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MB ChB) in 1912. He then did postgraduate studies in virology at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France and at the University of Hamburg in Germany.

In 1913, Dr Pawan returned to Trinidad to serve during World War I as an assistant surgeon in the Colonial Hospital in Port-of-Spain and, later, as the District Medical Officer in Tobago and Cedros. In 1923, he was promoted to Bacteriologist and Senior Pathologist. As the island’s only trained virologist, he was responsible for laboratory services and public health work in the whole territory.

In 1925, there was an outbreak of rabies in Trinidad among farm animals and, by the 1930s, humans had also begun to die. In 1932, Dr Pawan and his team of researchers isolated the rabies virus from bats, including the vampire bat. This discovery, which brought him worldwide fame, led to the development of an antidote and later, a vaccine against the virus. During the 1940s, Dr Pawan also did research on tuberculosis, malaria and other tropical diseases. He retired in 1947.

Dr Pawan was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 1934, soon after his discovery. He passed away on November 3rd, 1957, after a long illness. In 2002, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) posthumously named him a “Hero in Health” for his contribution to medical science.