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

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Professor Leslie Spence was instrumental in the control and prevention of epidemic diseases in Trinidad. He is known for his work on arboviruses1, which included the discovery of several new viruses, and for his work on enteroviruses2 including the polio virus. As director of the Trinidad Regional Virus Laboratory (TRVL), he developed the field of diagnostic virology to serve Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean.

Leslie Spence was born in St. Vincent on 16th August 1922. He received his early education in St. Vincent and Trinidad. He graduated in medicine from the University of Bristol, England in 1950, then studied tropical medicine at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine from 1950 to 1951. In 1951, he entered the Trinidad Medical Service and worked at the General Hospital in Port-of- Spain and in the District of Sangre Grande. In 1954, he was seconded to the Trinidad Regional Virus Laboratory of the Rockefeller Foundation and began a career in virology.

A year later, he undertook postgraduate studies in virology at the Rockefeller Foundation Virus Laboratories in New York City under Nobel Laureate, Dr Max Theiler. He continued postgraduate studies in bacteriology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In 1962, he became Director of the Trinidad Regional Virus Laboratory and Senior Lecturer in Microbiology at The University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine. He later received a Personal Chair in Virology at UWI.

In 1968, Spence immigrated to Canada where he was appointed Professor of Microbiology at McGill University in Montreal. In 1972, he was appointed Professor of Microbiology at the University of Toronto and Microbiologist at the Toronto General Hospital. He was elevated to Chairman of the Department of Microbiology of the University of Toronto and Chief Microbiologist at the Toronto General Hospital in 1983, and retired as Professor Emeritus in 1988.

Professor Spence did significant work on arboviruses in Trinidad and Tobago. Many of the arboviruses he isolated with a team at TRVL in Trinidad were new to science and others known to cause human diseases had not been previously reported from Trinidad and Tobago. He named three viruses after places in Trinidad and Tobago – Mayaro, Oropuche and Tacaribe3. His discovery of a patient suffering from yellow fever in Trinidad in 1954 led to the employment of control measures which prevented a serious outbreak of the disease in the rainy season. His virological studies on an outbreak of poliomyelitis in Guyana in 1962 led to the application of polio control measures in Trinidad and Tobago and the prevention of a similar outbreak in his own country. Professor Spence is also recognised for initiating and advancing rotavirus work in Trinidad and Tobago. Rotaviruses are a major cause of diarrhoeal disease in young children.

He served as a consultant to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Institute of Health of the United States. He was a member of the American Committee on Arboviruses and various committees of the Pan American Health Organization. He was Chairman of the Canadian Medical Research Council’s Grant Committee for Microbiology and Infectious Diseases from 1983 to 1986 and served on a number of committees of Health and Welfare Canada and the Ontario Government.

Professor Spence is a Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists of England and a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. In 1999, he received the Canadian Association of Medical Microbiologists Founder’s Award for Distinction in Medical Microbiology.





  1. An arthropod-borne (group of invertebrates such as insects, spiders, crabs, centipedes and millipedes) virus, usually spread by a blood-sucking insect
  2. A group of easily-replicated viruses e.g. the polio virus, which causes polio
  3. The Mayaro virus was mistaken in the past for dengue, the Oropouche virus is considered to be one of the most important viruses of its type and the Tacaribe virus discovery changed the way scientists classified that family of viruses