Prof Frank Griffin has enjoyed his career in animal science but has concerns that more investment is needed in the field of animal health. Photo by Jane Dawber.
Professor Frank Griffin sums up his lengthy career in animal
science with a simple comment - "it's grand".
For three decades, Prof Griffin has led a University of
Otago-based research team devoted to solving animal health
problems in the deer industry.
That work has included developing diagnostic tests for the
detection of two major bacterial diseases of New Zealand deer
- bovine tuberculosis and Johne's disease - and a vaccine for
the prevention of yersiniosis.
Widely respected in the industry, he was recently one of 11
researchers and scholars elected as Fellows of the Royal
Society of New Zealand.
Such an honour meant he had peer acceptance and that meant a
lot to him, he said.
And when the end of his career eventually came, the one thing
he hoped for was the respect of those people he respected, he
The deer industry, with which Prof Griffin has had such a
long involvement, welcomed the fellowship.
Deer Industry New Zealand producer manager Tony Pearse said
it recognised Prof Griffin's substantial commitment to the
industry and the challenges associated with both Tb and
Johne's disease in deer over three decades.
Those in the industry had enjoyed Prof Griffin's enthusiasm
and passion and his sharing of science, knowledge and
"It's been a productive association that's positively shaped
this aspect of deer farming," Mr Pearse said.
Irish-born Prof Griffin did his primary degree in
microbiology then his PhD in reproductive immunology.
He wanted to go to a "new world society" but he did not want
to go to the likes of the United States or Australia.
New Zealand or Canada seemed more friendly and receptive for
the young scientist.
There were job offers in both Australia and New Zealand - he
could have ended up an animal researcher in Townsville - but
he arrived in Dunedin in 1973 and started work at the
university as an immunology lecturer.
At first, he researched pregnancy complications in women but
later focused his attention on animals.
His involvement in the deer industry began following a trip
to Queenstown where he met up with former All Black Duncan
Robertson who had just got some deer.
The first challenge was to examine how post-capture stress
could be managed. It was quickly established that to get deer
to survive, the solution was not to get them eating but to
get them drinking.
Then other issues were identified - Tb was a big problem and
it was suggested it might be the disease that prevented deer
farming development, he recalled.
The issue at that stage was to find a test, other than a skin
test, for Tb diagnosis.
Prof Griffin led a group at the university which developed a
series of diagnostic tests that were more sensitive and
specific than the skin test used at the time to screen the
The resulting diagnostic tests have been available for deer
farmers since 1990 when they were formally incorporated into
the national control scheme for tuberculosis administered by
the then Maf and the Animal Health Board (now the National
Pest Management Strategy).
The Griffin test was able to detect those high-risk deer that
were so heavily infected they were anergic to subtle skin
tests and were diagnosed skin-test negative but, in reality,
were the major sources of Tb infection and a threat to the
health of the herd.
The identification and removal of those key animals was
partly responsible for the major progress in reducing bovine
Tb threats to the New Zealand farmed deer herd, the deer
In collaboration with Drs Colin Mackintosh and Bryce Buddle
from AgResearch, a vaccine was developed to protect
vulnerable young deer from yersinia infection.
The commercialisation of that vaccine had eliminated the
disease as a major economic constraint to production for deer
And for Johne's disease, the development of a series of
antibody tests meant infected animals could be identified and
culled early, removing the major source of new infection from
Prof Griffin said the deer industry was special because, all
over the world, enterprising people had been recruited to
work in it.
He had met some "incredible good people", he loved working at
the university and it had been "good fun".
But he also had some concerns about the future.
While he believed animal health and infectious disease
remained the single most important arbiter of farm profit in
the future, he was concerned that within three years there
might not be scientists working on animal health in New
There had never been a time when there was a greater need for
investment in animal health.
People were more preoccupied by volume, rather than quality,
and nobody was concerned about the health and integrity of
the productive unit.
"We've lost focus a little bit in the sense we've just taken
our eye off the ball," he said.
New Zealand had a long history of having "incredible
investment" in the primary sector but he felt that had
changed to market-driven initiatives.
"I'm very excited about New Zealand and what it can do but
very frustrated with the way the globe has turned," he said.
In the past decade, Prof Griffin said he had probably had
four of the best PhD students he had ever had.
Each one chose to work with large animals and each would like
to continue to work with large animals for the rest of their
careers, but he did not believe they would have that chance.