INFLUENZA: the “flu” virus, which causes high temperature, sore throat, runny nose, headache, dry cough and muscle pain.


MICROBIOLOGY: the study of living things so small that they can only be seen using a microscope.


PANDEMIC: a global outbreak of any disease. Pandemics spread quickly and easily from person to person and infect many people at one time.


POLIO: a viral disease that can result in deformity and the loss of movement in the legs.


PROFESSOR EMERITUS: an honorary position given to a distinguished retired professor who continues to teach


VIROLOGY: the study of viruses and the diseases they cause.



The three viruses found by Dr Spence were all named after parts of Trinidad. They are the Mayaro virus, which other researchers had mistaken for dengue in the past, the Oropouche virus that is considered to be one of the most important viruses of its type, and the Tacaribe virus, whose discovery changed the way scientists classified that family of viruses.

Leslie Spence (Date of Birth: 16th Aug 1922)

Caribbean Icons in STI Vol 2

Professor Emeritus Leslie Spence played a critical role in controlling the spread of viral diseases in Trinidad and Tobago. His pioneering research included the discovery of 11 viruses previously unknown to science. He also served as Director of the Trinidad Regional Virus Laboratory (TRVL), which has since been succeeded by the Caribbean Epidemiology Centre (CAREC).

Leslie Spence was born in St. Vincent on 16th August, 1922. He attended the St. Vincent Grammar School and later, St. Mary’s College in Trinidad. He studied medicine at Bristol University and, after graduation, took up training in tropical medicine. In 1951, he joined the Trinidad Medical Service and worked at local hospitals. He continues his studies in virology and bacteriology in the United States and England. In 1954, he started his career in virology at the TRVL, studying viruses and the diseases they cause.

At the TRVL, Dr Spence and his team of scientists identified a patient with yellow fever in Trinidad in 1954 – the firs such diagnosis in 40 years. His quick response led to his employment by the government to implement control measures which prevented a deadly outbreak of this disease. Similarly, his detection of a polio outbreak in Guyana in 1962 led to the implementation of control measures in Trinidad and Tobago, which successfully prevented cases of polio from occurring in the two islands. Spence also investigated the influenza pandemic that affected Trinidad in 1957.

His most outstanding work was the discovery of the 11 viruses which were given indigenous names:- Mayaro, Oropouche, Bush Bush, Tacaribe, Bimiti, Lelao, Triniti, Nepuyo, Aruac, Ieri and Lukuni. He also confirmed the presence in Trinidad of several viruses that cause human diseases.

From 1962 to 1968, Dr Spence served as Director to the TRVL. During this time, the Laboratory became part of the Department of Microbiology at The University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine, Trinidad. He served as Senior Lecturer in Microbiology at UWI and was subsequently appointed Personal Chair of Virology.

Six years later, Dr Spence moved to Montreal, Canada where he became Professor of Microbiology at McGill University. He later relocated to Toronto where he became Chairman of the Department of Microbiology of the University of Toronto and Head of the Microbiology Department of the Toronto General Hospital. He was an outstanding educator and was made Professor Emeritus in 1988 by the university of Toronto.

Professor Spence advises students that, “Medical virology is an interesting and worthwhile career. There is a world-wide shortage of medical virologists and there are great opportunities for anyone entering this field of work.”