Dr Norman Simmons, CBE

Leading microbiologist who campaigned against “health care’s v ersion of global warming”


Salmonella in eggs, listeria in soft cheese, superbugs like MRSA and E coli – and now Covid 19 – they were all the stuff of nightmares for clinical microbiologist Dr Norman Simmons, but also the chance to dedicate his life to eliminating them.

For his children it meant not being allowed to eat chocolate mousse because it involved raw eggs, nor re-heated rice and takeaway leftovers – too risky. It all had to be thrown away. Home-made mayonnaise – again a raw egg hazard – was an absolute no no. It was common sense, he decided, so why take avoidable risks? As the chance of listeria poisoning were remote, brie cheese and camembert were acceptable alternatives. Whatever his children may have thought about these paternal privations, there was consolation in being permitted to eat cake and cooked eggs and having a father so exceptionally well versed in the means to stay healthy and bug-aware.

Even in his eventual fragility brought on by a stroke in his late 80s, Dr Simmons knew more than most about infection control. As head of clinical microbiology at Guy’s Hospital London for over 20 years, he had garnered an international reputation and was among the first to be consulted on the subject of viruses and dangerous microbes. He managed to avoid contracting Covid 19 but died of the effects of a stroke at the age of 87.

As early as 1998 Simmons won thunderous applause for telling a pan-European conference in Copenhagen on antimicrobial resistance: “We screwed up and we ought to say so and apologise. Doctors were handed the wonderful gift of antibiotics, but are destroying them through indiscriminate use. We don’t need another committee. We know what to do; we should just use them less.” He was widely quoted in medical journals at the time.

To Dr Simmons and colleagues, increasing global resistance to antimicrobial agents was health care’s version of global warming. An inveterate letter writer challenging government health policy, he called for action over MRSA in a letter to The Times in 2005, whose message virtually anticipated today’s plague-ridden societies.

“To be truly effective,” he wrote, “measures to contain MRSA must block airborne transmission. This can be achieved only by the physical separation of carriers and infected patients from uninfected patients. Every major hospital should urgently be given isolation units.”

In another letter he said effective infection control would be expensive and doctors would face huge changes in the way they worked. “But if the government really wants MRSA to be tackled, these are the kind of plans they need to be considering, Hand-washing and cleaner floors is good, but it is not going to be enough.”

It would need, he insisted, physical separation of those who tested positive for the bug; only that would ensure the successful blocking of airborne transmission.

In 1988 when Edwina Currie, minister of agriculture, declared that most of Britain’s egg production was infected with salmonella, a furore among egg producers was followed by a 60 per cent drop in sales. It led to satirical newspaper comment and puns galore - parodying Eggwina. But public anxiety had to be assuaged.

Invited by The Times to give a guide to egg safety Simmons wrote – “the salmonella in eggs drama”– had been followed by “listeria hysteria”. His preference: cooked eggs, cakes, brie and camembert and don’t worry about listeria since the chances of being poisoned were remote. “Am I taking a chance by what I do? Of course I am,” he wrote. “But I am prepared to accept it.”

The youngest child of Annie and Louis Simmons, who ran a textile business, he was educated at Hurstpierpoint College, West Sussex and studied medicine at London’s St Mary’s Hospital Medical school, graduating in 1958. He developed an early interest in microbiology and pathology and joined Guy’s Department of Clinical Pathology in 1961, moving a year later to Edgware General Hospital, where his international influence grew in the field of clinical microbiology. He became a founder of the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy in 1971.

He married Peta Berry, a primary school teacher in 1967 and they had two daughters, Andrea, now a paediatrician, and Juliet a creative consultant.

In the mid ‘70s, he took on the presidency of the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association, the hospital doctors’ trade union, working with his elder brother, the late obstetrician Sir Stanley Simmons. He soon became involved in a political stand-off. In 1975 NHS doctors went on strike against measures they perceived would force them to abandon private practice. Simmons’ negotiations with Harold Wilson’s Labour government won the day. The social services minister Barbara Castle finally agreed that consultants choosing part-time NHS contracts could continue private practice.

Deeply admiring of his older brother, Norman Simmons felt this was the moment when he had matched him, according to Andrea, his daughter.

With food-borne illnesses, hospital and laboratory safety and dangerous bacteria among his main preoccupations, Simmons joined the few medically qualified Fellows of the Institute of Food /Science and Technology and was an international authority on infective endocarditis, a potentially serious bacterial-induced heart infection. In 1988 he became chair of the Association of Medical Microbiologists.

His rise to prominence came at a time of food scare headlines and a frightened public. His counsel was much sought after. He advised the Fishmongers’ Company on the quality-control of fish sold in Billingsgate Market plus a string of leading high street food retailers, cruise companies and government bodies.

In his personal life Simmons was known for his gregarious sense of humour, a man who loved skiing and listening to his favourite multi-genre vinyl records, or making Airfix models in his garden shed.

He once recalled a sci fi story set in a future – “when man has found the cure for all human diseases and the only way that people can die is in an accident – to avoid that possibility, they sit cocooned in a risk-free environment. Mankind degenerates and the machines take over.”

He mused: “I wouldn’t like that to happen to us.” Dr Simmons is survived by Peta and their daughters.


Dr Norman Simmons, CBE, born September 22, 1933. Died November 27, 2020

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