Dennis Bidwell obituary

Other lives: Immunologist who played an important role in the development of the Elisa diagnostic tool

My father-in-law, Dennis Bidwell, who has died aged 88, played a crucial part in the development in 1976 of the microplate enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (Elisa), a laboratory tool that has had a lasting impact on the diagnosis of disease.

The microplate consists of an eight-by-12 plastic grid of 96 small indentations numbered A1 to H12, which enables multiple tests to be carried out at the same time, rapidly and cheaply, using very small volumes of blood or other liquid samples. Research carried out by Dennis and his colleague Alister Voller demonstrated that the Elisa was superior to existing diagnostics for diseases including malaria and rubella. There was no commercial secrecy around the Elisa and so it became the most widely used diagnostic test for infective, immune, endocrine, cancer and haematological disorders, as well as horticultural and agricultural diseases.

With the support of the World Health Organisation (WHO), it was adopted internationally in diagnostic and research laboratories. The assay is now used in blood transfusion services to screen for human immunodeficiency virus and hepatitis viruses.

Dennis was born to Herbert Bidwell, a merchant seaman, and his wife, Doris (nee Webster), a seamstress, in Peckham, south London. His father died of cancer when the boy was four. Dennis, who was not selected for grammar school, had to find his own way in the academic world. He eventually achieved a degree and doctorate in immunology by attending night school under the aegis of London University, while working full-time as a lab technician at the Wellcome Institute and bringing up a young family with his wife, Marina, whom he had married in 1955.

He was recruited by the Nuffield Institute of Comparative Medicine in 1965 to work on virology, and in 1970 he joined the WHO Collaborating Laboratory on malaria diagnosis, led by Alister. This led to a highly productive collaboration lasting 30 years. In the early 1970s, a system of test analysis named Elisa was developed in Sweden; Dennis and Alister modified this original procedure, which was slow and required large samples, to produce a new version, which in 1976 they called microplate Elisa.

Dennis and Alister chose not to patent their pioneering work, preferring to allow their discovery to advance medical procedures the world over. They sought neither riches nor fame, but they did have a very rich working life and friendship together, travelling to Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and South America to lecture on the Elisa microplate and to enable countless numbers of practitioners to improve and accelerate their diagnostic techniques.

Dennis was an excellent teacher and went out of his way to help in his supervision of generations of students from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Despite his extraordinary contribution to medical science, he never spoke about his achievements and chose the obscurity and warmth of his home and family.

Dennis is survived by Marina, his daughters, Helen and Sarah, his grandchildren, Kate, Joe, Hollie and Alex, and his brother, Terry.

Brian Higgins

The GuardianTramp

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