Nigel Lightfoot was born in Hereford in 1945. He studied medicine at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington and joined the Navy. After three years on nuclear submarines he was appointed to Malta, as Medical Officer and GP to the Families Clinic. Intrigued by the detective game surrounding disease, Nigel went on to train in medical microbiology and quickly found his calling. To this day he continues to be fascinated by the puzzle of microbiology, its clues and its consequences, and his career has been driven by one important theme – the element of the unknown. From submarines to public health and from bio-terrorism to international cooperation, Nigel’s expertise is grounded upon knowledge, foresight and the ability to stay calm in the face of crisis. In the 2009 New Year’s Honours List 2009, Professor Nigel Lightfoot was appointed CBE for services to public health.
During his time with Polaris, Nigel conducted research into carbon monoxide exposure and infections aboard submarines. On his 3rd patrol, he had to treat two cases of severe appendicitis, which he later reflected was statistically impossible. His motto became expect the unexpected. On dry land he was called to deal with a serious skin infection affecting Royal Marines at Lympstone in Devon – the Woodbury Common Rash. Under instructions to go and ‘sort it out’, he coordinated an extensive investigation, identified the cause and implemented an effective intervention.He also responded to several large incidents of food poisoning and simultaneously coordinated policies for biological warfare defence. He developed the concept of post-exposure prophylaxis with antibiotics and most importantly, he learnt how to think ahead in terms of a wide impact assessment. This is Nigel’s key skill and one that he has been exploring ever since.
Nigel left the Navy in 1982 to take up a post as Director of the Public Health Laboratory in Taunton. He gained experience working closely with vets and issues of environmental health, with a particular focus on Brucellosis, Q Fever and Silicosis. In 1989, Nigel was appointed Director of the Public Health Laboratory in Newcastle. He dealt with large outbreaks of food poisoning and furthered his own research on Anthrax. Nigel also began a new phase of work looking at the microbiology and public health aspects of water. He went on to develop an external quality assessment scheme for water, which is now used worldwide – The HPA Drinking Water EQA Scheme. As his expertise grew, he coordinated four European contracts in the field of water microbiology, developing high quality testing and levelling the international playing field. He later progressed to manage all six Public Health Laboratories in the North of England – Carlisle, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Hull, Leeds and Yorkshire.
The Department of Health
With the emerging threat of bio-terrorism and the break up of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Nigel’s focus shifted to emergency strategy on an international level and he put together a group to develop cutting edge responses, protocols and government cooperation strategies. In 2001, in the wake of September 11th, Nigel was driving in his car when he heard the news that a reporter had died from Inhalation Anthrax poisoning in Florida. He pulled over, phoned his colleague Bob Spencer and they mutually agreed that the US had a problem on their hands. Nigel travelled to London to The Department of Health and was immediately called in by the Americans to advise as the saga unfolded. The DH swiftly invited him to start working with them on a permanent basis. At the Department of Health Nigel was tasked with developing strategies for dealing with the emerging terrorist threat. With only a month to prepare, he planned and ran the first ever exercise in terrorism in the health sector.
The Health Protection Agency
The HPA formed in 2003. Nigel was appointed Director of Emergency Response and instructed to make sure that nothing fell through the cracks. Organising the different parts of the HPA into a united body capable of a cohesive response in the case of an emergency was described by his colleague John Croft as ‘like walking through a minefield’. Said cohesive response turned out to be of vital importance for the subsequent Avian Influenza outbreaks and also for the Polonium-210 murder of Litvinenko in 2006, during which Nigel led the public health investigation and worked closely with police. This experience became invaluable for his later work in the G8 Bio-Terrorism Experts Group on Forensic Epidemiology and in the planning and responses to the recent H1N1 pandemic. Effective emergency preparedness and response at the HPA required expert leadership and the careful joining up of people used to playing with their own toys.
In 2010, Nigel retired from full time work as Director of the Health Protection Agency and set up his own private company, NL Associates. He continues to do the work he has always enjoyed with a particular focus on emergency preparedness, crisis management and CBRN. NL Associates is based in Newcastle, but Nigel regularly travels internationally. So far in 2011 he has worked in America, Canada and Japan.
Professor Nigel Lightfoot maintains the following roles:
- Consultant to the Department of Health and Advisor on the Global Health Security Initiative, where he chairs the Risk Management and Communications Working Group and co-chairs the Working Group Chairs on Delegations Liaisons.
- Independent Medical Advisor to The Drinking Water Inspectorate.
- Independent Medical Advisor to Northumbrian Water.
- Independent Medical Advisor to Yorkshire Water Services.
- Independent Medical Advisor to Tesco Stores Ltd.
- Independent Medical Advisor to Premier Waste.
- Senior Medical Advisor to Emergent Bio Solutions Inc.
He is currently working on an Early Alerting and Reporting Project which uses the 6 data mining engines in the health field to keep a close eye on CBRN threats.
When he’s not working Nigel likes to ride his horses, spend time in the countryside and cook breakfast on the beach for his four grandchildren, who never cease to surprise him.