Humanists UK mourns Professor Sir Anthony Epstein (1921-2024)

20 February, 2024

Humanists UK is saddened to learn of the death of its patron, the eminent pathologist and virologist Professor Sir Anthony Epstein, who died aged 102.

Born in 1921 in London, Sir Anthony Epstein went on to study medicine at Trinity College, Cambridge, and Middlesex Hospital Medical School. While assistant pathologist at Middlesex Hospital, he and his assistant Yvonne Barr, after several years of fruitless attempts to culture malign lymphoma cells, decided on a completely new approach to the problem: they separated and grew human lymphocytes in continuous culture, and in 1964, while examining some of these cells under an electron microscope, Epstein finally observed the particles now known as the Epstein-Barr virus, one of the most common viruses in humans.

Their breakthrough would reshape public health measures focusing on preventing serious disease and inspire decades of scientific research, with the Epsten-Barr virus becoming linked over time to various neurological and autoimmune conditions, various cancers, and certain HIV-related conditions.

Sir Anthony had a remarkable career. He was Professor of Pathology, and head of department at the University of Bristol, a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and its vice-president for five years. He was recognised for his achievements on numerous occasions, including being awarded the Royal Society’s Royal Medal in 1992. He was awarded a CBE in 1985 and knighted in 1991.

He was an avid supporter of Humanists UK’s campaigns, particularly teaching young people about the importance of science and the scientific method as a reliable route to knowledge and understanding about the universe. He was one of the 43 scientists and philosophers who in 2002 signed a letter to Tony Blair and relevant Government departments, deploring the teaching of creationism in schools. In 2009, he joined other eminent scientists and educators in calling for vital changes to the proposed science curriculum for primary schools in England in a letter to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools, and Families. He lent his scientific clout to a reprisal of this campaign, this time aimed at the Welsh Government, in 2019. He was also one of the signatories to a letter supporting a holiday on Charles’ Darwin’s birthday, published in The Times in 2003, and sent to the Prime Minister and Home Secretary.

Commenting on Sir Anthony Epstein’s death, Chief Executive Andrew Copson said:

‘I’m deeply saddened to learn of the death of Sir Anthony Epstein, a man who did so much to improve human life during his remarkable career. We will be forever grateful for his support for our campaigns. My heartfelt condolences to his friends and family.’


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Kathy Riddick at or phone 020 7324 3072 or 020 3675 0959.

Humanists UK has over 200 patrons who support its work in various ways through their expertise and prominence in various fields. Existing patrons include significant figures from the spheres of science, philosophy, human rights activism, politics, the arts, and broadcasting. The President of Humanists UK is the geneticist, science writer, and broadcaster, Dr Adam Rutherford. He is supported by Vice Presidents Professor Alice Roberts, Shaparak Khorsandi, Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Professor AC Grayling, and Polly Toynbee.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 120,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.