RIP Professor Basil Jarvis (1936 – 2018)

20 Feb 2019

RIP Professor Basil Jarvis (1936 – 2018)

Since 1970, Basil has been a larger-than-life member of SfAM, and his presence will be greatly missed. I had the privilege of working with him at the Leatherhead Food Research Association in the early 1970s, when he headed the food microbiology section, and then much later after he retired and he was free to indulge his life-long passion for microbiological statistics. 

He was also a dedicated teacher, although he worked full-time in academia for only a few years.  I am grateful for material for this obituary from some of Basil’s former colleagues, especially Alan Reynolds, Paul Neaves and Maurice Moss. 

Lively character

Many of us in the Society will have known Basil very well as a colleague and/or as a friend and even newer members will know something of this six-foot-two, larger-than-life character, clutching his unlit pipe in hand or teeth, even when forbidden from actually smoking it.  He could be seen striding around at SFAM meetings in rather flamboyant attire, often sporting plus-fours as if he had just come in from a shoot on the moors.

Through his dress code and general demeanour he was certainly making a statement about aspects of his character/personality.  He showcased the spirited, fun-loving, agreeable, sporting individual who felt very relaxed in any company and was at his best in conversation over a pint of beer or late-night single malt - or two! Contrary to these external observations of him, Basil was no extrovert, a little eccentric maybe, but a kindly and loyal person who would listen, reflect, encourage, and support.

Investigating his academic career has been an interesting exercise.  I wish I could have discussed it with him. His A-levels, obtained when he was only 17, were in Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics – which I consider a perfect basis for a career in microbiology.  

Daring to dairy

He took his first degree in 1958 in Dairying at the University of Reading – a somewhat surprising choice of topic, bearing in mind his A-levels – but perhaps influenced by the ‘gap’ year he spent working on farms. Basil retained his link with Reading almost to the end of his life, obtaining his PhD there, and teaching final year students there as a Visiting Professor from 1976 until 2016.  

As a Reading graduate myself, I know Basil would have been thoroughly trained in microbiology during the first two years of his BSc course. His first job was as a microbiologist with United Dairies, from where he moved in 1960 to St Helier hospital in Carshalton to work as a clinical chemist because he wanted to improve his biochemistry.  

Nisin and tylosin

This job gave him the opportunity to study for a London University Diploma in Clinical Chemistry, with a thesis entitled Spectrophotometric analysis of blood pigments in haemolytic disease of the new-born. Following a brief period at the Tropical Products Institute (now called Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich), Basil was offered a job as Assistant Lecturer in Microbiology at the National College of Food Technology (part of the University of Reading).

He worked there from 1964 to 1971, completing a PhD in 1967 on Inactivation of the antibiotic nisin by enzymes from species of Bacillus, and rapidly worked his way up via Senior Lecturer to Head of the Microbiology Department. 

Basil’s life-long links with Scandinavian food microbiologists were forged from his sabbatical during 1968 in the Biokjemisk Institutt at the University of Oslo studying cell-free synthesis of peptide antibiotics. The use of antibiotics as food preservatives was highly contentious but, since nisin had negligible use in medicine, it was approved for use in some foods, and continues to be used for this purpose.

Basil also studied the macrolide antibiotic tylosin, but this was more controversial than nisin as it was closely related to erythromycin which is widely used in medicine. This led to one of Basil's first publications at Weybridge, with Mario Morisetti, The Use of Antibiotics as Food Preservatives.

Nutty professor

His interest in microfungi in foods also started at Weybridge, where his research was into     the growth and production of aflatoxin by Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus in nuts, specifically pistachio nuts. This developed into a PhD project, the first Basil supervised.

The research student was Turkish, Turkey having commercial problems with export of their pistachio nuts at the time due to aflatoxin formation in them as a consequence of poor agricultural and storage practices. 

Basil requested samples of the nuts from Turkey for the project, expecting a few kilos at most, but in the event receiving two 50 kilo sacks! Not a single nut went to waste!!  Basil’s death diminishes further the number of microbiologists expert in spoilage of foods by microfungi and also able to identify them using traditional methods.

Legendary parties

During his time at NCFT, Basil’s enthusiasm and talent for teaching developed, and he maintained this for the rest of his life.  His many UK and foreign post-grad students, as well as his staff attest to his kindness, patience and helpfulness as a mentor. The parties and other gatherings at his home expertly assisted by his wife, Marjorie, were legendary.  

In 1971 Basil was appointed Chief Microbiologist at BFMIRA (British Food Manufacturing Industries Research Association, later Leatherhead Food RA, and then Leatherhead Food International). Here Basil was successful in obtaining various research grants, and recruiting many more microbiologists, to work on various aspects of food microbiology, including rapid microbiological methods, media and methods for detecting pathogens in foods, microbiological aspects of new and traditional food processing techniques, including their effects on Clostridium botulinum, and moulds and mycotoxins in foods.  

True to form, Basil rose to Deputy Director (Science) at the RA in 1978, with responsibility for the scientific and technical aspects of the RA’s work in food science, leading to many other responsibilities, including membership of various trade and government committees.

During this time, Basil began to develop his interest in microbiological statistics, after writing a report for MAFF on statistical aspects of food microbiology (which was the precursor to his book “Statistical Aspects of the Microbiological Examination of Foods” now in its 3rd edition (2016)). 

Milk maestro

In 1983, Basil moved on to Grand Metropolitan Foods Ltd, which included Express Dairies and a number of other milk-processing companies, as Corporate Research and Development Director, where he was responsible for all aspects of the work of about 100 UK R&D staff, together with other staff based in Ireland and USA, as well as many other aspects of running a major food company.  

This appointment involved a lot of foreign travel, so Basil moved in 1987 to another challenging but more UK-based position, as technical director of H P Bulmer, cider manufacturer, where he had direct fiscal responsibility for all technical and scientific matters within the group of companies.

In particular, he was responsible for the design and construction of the Technical Centre, completed in 1989.  He recruited Scientific and technical staff to provide a cost-effective Technical Unit that was concerned with Information science and legislation; product, process and packaging development; process research; fundamental research; central Analytical Services (Microbiology & Chemistry); and Quality Assurance. 

Local Hero

In 1995, Basil took “early” retirement, which for many would have ushered in a well-deserved leisurely and relaxing period to enjoy ‘time with the family’ in Upton Bishop, and his many pursuits, including fly fishing, shooting, farming and forestry, as well as supporting local village causes, including the churches at Kempley, especially the historic church of St Mary, now taken over by English Heritage.  

Far from it!  While he did find time for these things, he also ran a consulting company “Ross Biosciences” until 2013, which kept him busy at home and abroad dealing with a wide variety of problems related to food microbiology, ranging from the Irish beef industry, to UK soft drinks manufacturers and court cases in South Africa.

On top of all this, Basil was President of SFAM from 1987 to 1989, sat on numerous government and food industry committees, besides being involved in many educational initiatives. In particular his unique and important contribution as Visiting Professor at Reading University was to set challenging food product development projects for teams of final year food science/technology students, which brought together and, in a sense, crystallised the combined knowledge the teams had acquired throughout their multidisciplinary course in a very constructive and meaningful way.

Iconic teacher

It was generally regarded as being one of the highlights of the final year, when students could benefit directly from the vast and wide experience of a leading food industry scientist. Basil also contributed greatly to the International WHO-sponsored Advanced Food Microbiology course that ran biannually from 1975 to 2001 at the University of Surrey.

Basil was Honorary Professor of Microbiology (1991-2006) at Surrey.  More recently, in tune with his talent and enthusiasm for teaching, he was a keen supporter of the Early Career Scientist sessions run by SFAM.  He was also an active Fellow of the Royal Institute of Biology and a number of other scientific societies.

His ‘retirement’ also allowed him time to develop his interest in the statistics of food microbiology, resulting in three editions of his book on the topic, and enabling him to collaborate with Alan Hedges and my research group at Bristol University on several research projects examining uncertainty of measurement in food microbiology. This is an important topic because the safety and acceptability of many foods are largely assessed from results obtained by accurately counting numbers of various groups of microbes.  


Basil wrote over 200 papers, the earliest was a letter to The Lancet in 1960, describing the counts obtained on Thames river water while he was still an undergraduate in Reading.

The last I could find was published in January 2019 (Some Statistical Considerations Regarding the Occurrence and Analysis of Bioactive Materials in Foods. In: Mérillon JM., Ramawat K. (eds) Bioactive Molecules in Food. Reference Series in Phytochemistry. Springer, Cham).  

Basil was working almost to the last day of his life. He died on the 18th of December after a short illness following a stroke.

Janet Corry