Vaccine History: Scientists – In Memoriam
Dr. John B. Robbins
Dr. John B. Robbins, a pioneer in vaccinology, passed away on Nov. 27, 2019, at the age of 86.
Dr. Robbins was best known for creating a vaccine against Haemophilus influenzae type b, or Hib. He and his longtime collaborator, Dr. Rachel Schneerson, pioneered a novel approach to vaccination against encapsulated bacteria. Typically, young infants do not make good immune responses to bacteria that have outer capsules made of complex sugars (called polysaccharides). As such, methods used previously to make vaccines against other bacteria and viruses had not worked for infections like Hib, pneumococcus or meningococcus. Drs. Robbins and Schneerson devised a method in which they attached a harmless protein to the polysaccharide coating. This alteration changed how the immune system responded, thereby allowing babies to develop immunity against these bacteria through vaccination.
Before the vaccine, Hib infected about 25,000 children every year in the United States. The conjugated Hib vaccine has been credited with saving as many as 7 million lives around the world, and virtually eliminating this disease from the U.S. For his work on the Hib vaccine, Dr. Robbins received the 1996 Albert Lasker Medical Research Award, along with his colleagues.
In addition to his pioneering work in developing the Hib vaccine, Dr. Robbins also had a significant role in developing a conjugated typhoid fever vaccine, currently being used in Pakistan. His efforts provided an approach that is now also used in protecting against meningococcus and pneumococcus, as well as ongoing efforts related to other infectious agents.
Dr. Robbins received his undergraduate and medical degrees from New York University and completed his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He completed four decades of research at the National Institutes of Health, before retiring at the age of 80.
Dr. Donald A. Henderson
Dr. Donald A. Henderson, an integral leader in one of humankind’s greatest public health triumphs, passed away Aug. 19, 2016, at the age of 87. Dr. Henderson, known as D.A., led the international effort against smallpox, ultimately ridding the world of this often fatal and disfiguring infectious disease.
Beginning in 1966, Dr. Henderson led the World Health Organization’s (WHO) campaign to eradicate smallpox. The last known case occurred in 1977, and the disease was declared eradicated in 1980. Prior to taking this position at the WHO, Dr. Henderson created a smallpox surveillance unit at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S, an experience he drew from to implement the WHO’s ultimate strategy of surveillance, containment, and targeted vaccination. The latter — also known as ring vaccination — was developed by colleague Dr. William “Bill” Foege to encircle outbreaks with vaccinated people instead of attempting to vaccinate all potential victims.
After leaving the WHO, Dr. Henderson became the dean of Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. In 1998, he helped found and direct the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense. In 2001, Henderson became the U.S. government’s first emergency preparedness director. Until his death, Dr. Henderson remained an important source of expert guidance related to control of infectious diseases and vaccine policy, particularly as it related to bioterrorism preparedness.
Dr. Henderson is a “vaccine hero” in Vax Pack Hero, a project of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. You can find out more about Dr. Henderson on his project profile page.
Dr. Hunein Maassab
Dr. Hunein (John) Maassab was born in Damascus, Syria, in 1926 and immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1940s. Upon earning his bachelor’s degree in biology in 1950 from the University of Missouri, Maassab continued his education, eventually earning his master’s degree in physiology and pharmacology in 1952. In 1956 he earned his doctoral degree in epidemiology from the University of Michigan. It was during his doctoral training that Dr. Maassab decided his life’s work would be creating vaccines, specifically influenza vaccines.
Through decades of hard work, Dr. Maassab developed a weakened version of influenza virus that could survive in the cool temperatures of the nose but could not survive in the warmer temperatures of the rest of the body. Decades of testing in thousands of people eventually determined that Dr. Maassab’s nasal spray influenza vaccine was effective at preventing influenza. In 2003, Dr. Maassab’s vaccine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and eventually licensed as FluMist®. Upon receiving FDA approval, Dr. Maassab was quoted to have said, “I feel in a sense that I have accomplished my life’s dream."
Dr. Maassab passed away in his home in North Carolina on Feb. 1, 2014. He was 87 years old.
Dr. Hilary Koprowski
Dr. Hilary Koprowski was born in Poland in 1915 and received his medical degree from the University of Warsaw in 1939. Upon moving to the United States in 1944, Koprowski joined Lederle Laboratories where he developed the first live oral polio vaccine to be used in clinical trials. In 1957, Dr. Koprowski joined the Wistar Institute and became director of the institution. Under Koprowski’s direction, Wistar scientists developed a rubella vaccine that is used in the MMR vaccine. In the 1970s, Dr. Koprowski expanded the scope of his research to include monoclonal antibodies to help detect and diagnose cancer.
Dr. Koprowski left the Wistar Institute in 1991 and joined Thomas Jefferson University as professor of cancer biology and the director of the Center for Neurovirology and Biotechnology Foundation Laboratories. While at Thomas Jefferson University, his research focused on developing plant-based vaccines. Dr. Koprowski passed away in Philadelphia on April 11, 2013; he was 96 years old.
Dr. Koprowski is a “vaccine hero” in Vax Pack Hero, a project of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. You can find out more about Dr. Koprowski on his project profile page.
Dr. H Fred Clark
Dr. H Fred Clark was a scientist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia where he co-invented the rotavirus vaccine known as RotaTeq®. The vaccine uses a strain of rotavirus originally isolated from a cow, but modified in Dr. Clark's lab to include individual genes from human rotavirus strains. By modifying the virus in this way, Dr. Clark and colleagues, including Dr. Stanley Plotkin and Dr. Paul Offit, Director of the Vaccine Education Center, were able to devise a vaccine that induces protective immunity in babies, preventing the severe diarrhea and vomiting common with this infection.
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia recognized Dr. Clark in 2006 with its highest honor, the Gold Medal, which is awarded to those who have had a profound impact on children’s health in the United States and worldwide.
Dr. Clark also devoted much of his time over the years to providing care and support to Haitians who suffered from poverty and injustice. He was one of those rare individuals whose life-saving scientific discovery and dedication to those less fortunate will live well beyond him. Dr. Clark passed away on April 28, 2012 in Philadelphia, PA, at the age of 75.
Dr. Clark is a “vaccine hero” in Vax Pack Hero, a project of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. You can find out more about Dr. Clark on his project profile page.
Dr. Irving Millman
Dr. Millman, a microbiologist who helped develop the hepatitis B vaccine, died on April 17, 2012, in Washington, DC. Working with Dr. Baruch Blumberg at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Dr. Millman helped figure out how to separate the virus from human blood and render it incapable of reproducing when used as a vaccine.
Although this process is no longer necessary to produce the hepatitis B vaccine used today (due to improvements in biotechnology which allow the vaccine to be produced without using blood products), it was critical to the development of the first version. Dr. Millman also worked on vaccines for tuberculosis, pertussis and rubella; developed a test for detecting hepatitis B in blood; and researched a bacterium that causes acne.
Dr. Baruch Blumberg
Dr. Baruch Blumberg co-discovered the hepatitis B virus surface antigen which later allowed for development of a vaccine for the virus. His work on hepatitis B virus led him to receive the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1976. His book, Hepatitis B: The Hunt for a Killer Virus, tells the story of his research. Dr. Blumberg passed away on April 5, 2011, in California, where he was the keynote speaker at a NASA meeting. He was 85 years old.
Dr. Edwin D. Kilbourne
Dr. Edwin D. Kilbourne's work was central to the development of the methods used in making today's influenza vaccines. He passed away in Connecticut at the age of 90 on Feb. 21, 2011.
Dr. Robert Austrian
Born in Baltimore, MD, Dr. Robert Austrian, the inventor of the adult version of the pneumococcal vaccine, earned his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1941. He spent time researching pneumococcus in New York before joining the faculty of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in 1962. During the 1970s, Dr. Austrian oversaw clinical trials of his pneumococcal vaccine in South Africa where gold miners were particularly susceptible to pneumococcal infections because of crowded conditions and exposure to different types of the bacteria in their new surroundings. Dr. Austrian was not only an exemplary scientist, but he was also an inspiration to others.
Until his death, Dr. Austrian worked in his research laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia six days a week studying pneumococcus. He passed away on March 25, 2007, at the age of 90.
Dr. Austrian is a “vaccine hero” in Vax Pack Hero, a project of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. You can find out more about Dr. Austrian on his project profile page.
Dr. Maurice Hilleman
On April 11, 2005, the world lost one of its premier vaccine researchers when Dr. Maurice Hilleman died at the age of 85. Dr. Hilleman’s may not have been a household name, but his accomplishments touched every household. He is credited with developing vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis B, hepatitis A, meningococcus, pneumococcus, and Japanese encephalitis virus. He was also the first to show that the influenza virus changes each year in such a way that a previous immunization or episode of disease is not enough to protect someone from getting the flu again. Dr. Hilleman’s work saves about 8 million lives every year.
When Dr. Hilleman’s daughter Jeryl Lynn had the mumps, he swabbed the back of her throat and weakened the swabbed virus in his lab to create a vaccine for mumps. Today, 1-year-olds still receive the Jeryl Lynn strain of mumps vaccine when they are given the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine. According to James Truslow Adams, “The great use of life is to spend it on something that will outlast it.”
Dr. Hilleman’s life and work was featured in the documentary, Hilleman: A Perilous Quest to Save the World’s Children. Visit the film website to learn more or get the film.
Dr. Hilleman is a “vaccine hero” in Vax Pack Hero, a project of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. You can find out more about Dr. Hilleman on his project profile page.
Materials in this section are updated as new information and vaccines become available. The Vaccine Education Center staff regularly reviews materials for accuracy.
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