Yesterday October 5th 2011 a famous figure in the field of information technology & computing, Steve Jobs of the Apple Corporation died. He is well known to many people. On the same day the funeral of a somewhat less well known man was held. He was Emeritus Professor Peter Sneath FRS.

Steve Jobs may well have had many interests outside those for which he was well known but he would be hard pressed to compete with Peter Sneath.

Peter Sneath

Peter was interested in medicine, in which he qualified, then blood grouping and ultimately pathology, specifically bacteriology.

He was the primary initiator of "Numerical Taxonomy", a process which enables items to be classified and thereafter accurately identified. Peter initially used the method for bacteria, but it was soon used in many other fields such as geology. His transatlantic colleague, Robert Sokal, was working on similar lines, but with bees.

The techniques involved in numerical taxonomy required that a large number of tests be carried out on a large number of organisms. This led to new test methods being devised and perhaps more significantly the use of computers and associated programs to analyse the data.

When I first began working as Peter Sneath's Chief Technician in 1965, we used a computer that had punched paper tape as the input method. A programme had to be entered in the computer followed by the data and this sequence had to be carried out every time a computer run was processed.The computer, a British made Elliott 803 was housed in its own room in the Physics department and it was the only computer in the University of Leicester. Michael Sackin was our computer programmer and had unique skills in this field.

I vividly remember when Peter Sneath ordered an Apple 2, the first personal computer. This is another link with Steve Jobs.

Later in his career he was the inaugural Professor of Microbiology at the University of Leicester, but it was his work in the field of the classification and identification of bacteria in which he will be best remembered.

Peter had wider range of knowledge and intellect than anyone I have known before or since. He wrote sonnets and painted. He did a lot of singing, particularly Gilbert and Sullivan and English madrigals and had insights into the individual madgrigal composers.

He was a modest man who once in the early 1940's had to administer an injection of the relatively new penicillin to a baby. He said that this was his claim to fame because the baby was Joanna Lumley.

I met Peter's wife Joan Sneath several times and she was a wonderful host at the Sneath's homes in Leicester.

Although I worked for 15 years with Peter Sneath, and knew him for 46 years, it was only during his funeral service that I learned that he wrote sonnets. The man's skills were wide indeed.

The brevity of this blog does not do justice to Peter as I have omitted a great deal of his interests and achievements. For a more deserving description of his life I would heartily recommend : .....Sneath, P. H. A. (2010). "Reflections on microbial systematics". The Bulletin of BISMiS 1 (1): 7783.
There is another obituary by his academic colleagues Dorothy Jones and Bill Grant on the University of Leicester's website at

Peter Henry Andrews Sneath will be sadly missed, he was a true gentleman.

Peter Sneath