Listeria Monocytogenes: Its discovery and naming

Listeria Monocytogenes: Its discovery and naming.
Eben van Tonder
16 December 2017
Cape Town

Second article work on Listeria monocytogenes:  Listeria Monocytogenes:  Understanding the organism, and designing effective hurdles in the factory.




The discovery and naming of the Listeria monocytogenes are instructive with a very interesting South African connection and a controversy associated with it in that there is disagreement in terms of who is being honoured in the name.


The first description of Listeria monocytogenes was published by Murray, Webb, and Swanne in 1926.  In the animal breeding establishment at the Department of Pathology at Cambridge, they observed six cases of sudden death in young rabbits in May of 1924.  Over the course of the following 15 months, many more such deaths occurred.

The researchers realised that the characteristics of the disease were such that the organism causing it has not been described previously or, if it was, it was done so inadequately that tracing it was not possible.  They were probably right in this assertion as it seems that several reports may have described it in the past, certainly in the work of Hulphers.  But, as Murry and his coworkers said, these failed to deposit their isolates in a permanent collection which made subsequent comparison impossible.  (Ryser, E. T., Marth, E. H.; 2007: 1,2)

Murray and his colleagues saw that the most noticeable characteristic of the disease, the production of large mononuclear leucocytosis.  Leucocytes are white blood cells and leucocytosis describes a condition where the white blood cell count is over the normal range and usually indicates infection.  (Ryser, E. T., Marth, E. H.; 2007: 1,2)  “White blood cells (WBCs) are immune system cells that defend the body against infectious disease and foreign materials.”  (Lumen)   Two types exist.  Granulocytes, also known as polymorphonuclear (PMN) leukocytes are the usual type that one expects to increase in the case of bacterial or fungal infection and other very small inflammatory processes.  They are involved in short-term responses and are also the predominant inflammatory cells in allergic reactions.  (Lumen)  On the other hand, there are the Mononuclear (MN) leukocytes which are characterized by a single round nucleus within the cytoplasm.  This is the type that Murray and his colleagues encountered.  Based on this observation, they named the organism, “Bacterium monocytogenes”  (Ryser, E. T., Marth, E. H.; 2007: 1,2)


In 1927, Dr. J.H. Harvey Pirie (James Hunter Harvey), identified a disease in gerbils near Johannesburg, South Africa which he named Tiger River Disease and later Listerella.

Pirie attended Gordon’s College in Aberdeen, Scotland, and received his BSc from the University of Edinburgh in geology.  “He then came to South Africa as a lieutenant in the University Unit of the Royal Army Field Artillery to take part in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). After contracting and recovering from typhoid fever he returned to Scotland and qualified in medicine (MB ChB) at the University of Edinburgh in 1902. That same year he joined the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (1902-1904), led by W.S. Bruce, as a medical officer, bacteriologist, and geologist. Among other contributions, he published ‘A note on the geology of Gough Island’ (Proceedings of the Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh, 1905/6), while his observations on the bacteriology of the Antarctic region were later published in Volume 3 (1912) of the expedition’s Report. After his return to Scotland, he started a private practice and also joined the staff of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. In 1907 he qualified as Doctor of Medicine (MD) and in 1910 was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.” (Biographical Database)

“In 1913 Pirie was appointed in the Colonial Medical Services and sent to Kenya as government pathologist and medical officer at the European Hospital in Mombasa. After the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918) he was commissioned as a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps Field Force and served with the Kenyan forces in the German East Africa Campaign. After the war, in August 1918, he was appointed as superintendent of the routine division of the South African Institute for Medical Research (SAIMR) in Johannesburg. From 1922 to 1926 he was also a part-time lecturer, later senior lecturer, in pathology at the recently established Medical School of the University of the Witwatersrand. Upon the retirement of Dr. W. Watkins-Pitchford as director of the Institute in 1926 Pirie became deputy director and in addition to his research also had administrative duties. In 1930 he undertook a four-month tour to South and North America, the main objective of which was to attend the 98th meeting of the British Medical Association in Winnipeg, Canada. In September 1939 he was appointed acting director of the Institute (following the death of the director, Sir F.S. Lister) and held this position until his retirement in June 1940.  (Biographical Database)

“Early in 1925 Pirie was transferred to the Research Division of the Institute to conduct research into the plague, as a serious outbreak of the disease had occurred. He undertook many field trips to identify the rodent species responsible for spreading the plague, in collaboration with the entomologist Dr. A. Ingramm who studied their fleas and other external parasites that might be vectors for the plague organism. Ingram named a new flea species, Xenophsylla piriei, after him.”  It was during this three years of plague research that Pirie identified the disease in gerbils, which he named Tiger River Disease.  He studied the causative organism extensively he placed it in a new bacterial genus, Listerella hepatolytica. He published a description of the disease and of other plague work, including a monograph in collaboration with Dr. J.A. Mitchell and Ingramm on ‘The plague problem in South Africa’, in SAIMR Publication No. 20 (1927).””  (Biographical Database)

Murray and Pirie both sent their strains to The National Type Collection of the Lister Institute in London.  Dr. Leningham, the director, immediately saw the similarities between the two strains and put the researchers in contact with each other.  They decided to call the organism Listerella monocitogenes.  In 1939 the International Committee on Systematic Bacteriology rejected the name Listerella because it was already used for a mycetozoan (1906) in honour of Arthur Lister and for a species of foraminifera (1933) in honour of his father, Joseph Jackson Lister.  Pirie proposed the name Listeria in 1940.  (Ryser, E. T., Marth, E. H.; 2007:  2)

In whose honour?

Did Pirie name it Listeria in honour of Lord Josept Lister, brother of Arthur Lister and son of Joseph Jackson Lister or was it Sir F.S. Lister, as is claimed by amongst others, S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science?

Pirie himself settled the issue when he wrote “I propose . . . the generic name Listerella in honour of Lord Lister, one of the most distinguished of those connected with bacteriology whose name has not been commemorated in bacteriological literature”.  There has been only one “Lord Lister”, the father of antiseptic surgery, and this should settle the issue.

The controversy was created by Seeliger who sent a copy of a letter from a South African bacteriologist who claimed that Pirie meant to honour Sir F. S. Lister, Director of the South African Institute for Medical Research from 1926 to 1939.  Two other South African bacteriologists held the same opinion.  The issue was further escalated when Wilson and Miles in “Topley and Wilson’s Principles of Bacteriology” stated, “Pirie suggested the generic name Listerella in honour of Sir Spencer Lister” and not, as was stated in previous editions, in honour of Lord Lister.  The change was apparently made on the basis of a verbal statement without verifying the fact and has been admitted to be an error.  This, however, created confusion and the controversy endured.

N. E. Gibbons sent an inquiry on the matter to J. H. S. Gear, the Director of the South African Institute for Medical Research who replied, “There is no doubt that Dr. Pirie wished to honour Lord (Joseph) Lister, in naming the organism.  When he suggested the name Listerella hepatolytica for the Tyger River bacillus, he noted that a group of organisms had been named Pasteurella, after Louis Pasteur, and had in mind a similar honour for Lord Lister in recognition for his great contribution to bacteriology.”

Even though Lister’s greatest work is associated with surgery, after a colleague pointed out Pasteur’s work, he devoted much of his time to growing microorganisms.  He corresponded with Pasteur.  He initially thought that bacteria, yeast, and fungi develop from one another.  Pasteur replied to him that he must be working with mixed cultures.  Lister, in response to this, continued to dilute his mixtures until a drop contained only one organism and was thus able to grow only one organism alone.  On one of his first attempts, he grew a pure culture of Bacterium lactis.  This made him the first to isolate a bacterium in pure culture.


The work of Murray and Pirie was groundbreaking and the South African connection, very interesting.  It helps me to know what on earth the “monocytogenes” part of the name refers to and whom “Lister was.

The first confirmed case of listeriosis was a soldier suffering from meningitis at the end of World War 1.  (Ryser, E. T., Marth, E. H.; 2007:  2)  L. monocytogenes is not as common as foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli, but it is one of the most deadly and adaptable bacteria found in food. Unlike many of the other pathogens, Listeria grows at refrigeration temperatures and in low-moisture environments and in 2010, it was responsible for 5463 deaths according to the European researchers in the World Health Organization (WHO).  This accounts for 23.6% of all those who were infected. (foodsafetynews)

Second article work on Listeria monocytogenes:  Listeria Monocytogenes:  Understanding the organism, and designing effective hurdles in the factory.


Gibbons, N. E..  1972.  Listeria Pirie-Whom Does It Honor? INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL of SYSTEMATIC BACTERIOLOGY, January 1972, p- 1-3, International Association of Microbiological Societies, Vol. 22, No. 1 Printed in U.S.A.

Ryser, E. T., Marth, E. H. (Ed).  2007.  Listeria, Listeriosis, and Food Safety, Third Edition.  CRC Press.

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