harvard public health review, 75th anniversary issue, vol. i, 1954-1971

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  • H E S U M M E R OF 1 9 5 4 brings the televised spectacle of Senator Joseph McCarthy's hearings on un-American activities, deepen-ing U.S. concern about communist expansion in Southeast Asia,

    and the launch of the brilliantly successful nationwide polio immuniza-tion campaign. The American Zeitgeist combines patriotic fervor and Cold War anxiety with an almost limitless faith in the ability of govern-ment and technology to resolve societal ills. By 1967, U.S. Surgeon General William H. Stewart boldly predicts imminent victory over all infectious diseases.

    Under Dean John Crayton Snyder, the Harvard School of Public Health rides this wave of public confidence and federal funding to new levels of prominence and success, adding faculty, buildings, and depart-ments. By 1970, the School's enrollment has reached 170 , more than 10-times the enrollment when the School was founded, and graduates occupy key positions in the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization, and in governments worldwide.

    Expansion and Gtobatization

  • Taming the Summer

    Scourge

    1954 Mass testing of polio vaccines begins, using the "killed virus" version developed by Jonas Salk.

    Thomas Weller, John F. Enders, and Frederick C. Robbins awarded the Nobel Prize for research that enabled the development of the polio vaccine.

    James L. Whittenberger, chair of the Department of Physiology, develops a "sit-up respirator" for emphysema sufferers. The invention is featured in Mewstvee/r, 7/Ye, and on C8S television.

  • ^ T WAS MARCH 3 0 , 1 9 4 8 . T o the

    ! relief of Boston baseball fans, ] Ted Williams was back in the ! Red Sox line-up for an exhibition

    game. Massachusetts lawmakers were debating a bill that would make it legal to disseminate information about birth control. Around the country, worried Democrats were talking about abandoning the increasingly unpopular president, Harry Truman, and mounting a draft-Eisenhower movement.

    A gusty, south wind was finally shaking the resolve of a late-spring, Boston cold spell. Thirty-two-year-old Thomas Weller was working in the second-floor lab in the old Carnegie Building. Affiliated with Children's Hospital, the lab had been set up a year earlier by Weller and John F. Enders, a brilliant, unortho-dox scientist who had left his job in the bacteriologic department at Harvard Medical School to set up this lab. Because he came from a wealthy family, Enders had been cast by his rivals as being a bit of a dilettante. Weller remembers the lab as having old soapstone sinks and a decidedly grim view of a power plant. The windows had to be kept shut for fear of contamination, but smoke from the power plant would still occasion-ally seep in. In the summer, the temperatures inside the lab could be sweltering.

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    Dean Simmons suffers a heart attack while on a global tour. He dies several months later on the way home from a family vacation. John Crayton Snyder is appointed Dean.

    Yet some exciting events were beginning to happen. Enders and Weller had set up the lab to grow and isolate disease-causing viruses in the same way as a previous generation of scientistsLouis Pasteur and Edward Koch-had launched the bacterio-logical age of medicine by growing and isolating disease-causing bacteria in nutrient media. Earlier that month, Weller had had some gratifying success in growing mumps virus in tissue culture for the first time. Now he was working on his pet project, trying to grow varicella, or the chicken pox virus. " I wanted to get embryonic skin and muscle tissue for the varicella work, thinking that if there is skin in the culture, maybe the virus would grow in it," says Weller.

    Faded memory has obscured why and at whose initiative Weller took the next step. But regardless of vagaries of distributing credit, Weller made medical history by opening the freezer on that March day, removing some mouse brain infected with the Lansing strain of the polio virus, and putting it in tissue culture flasks left over from his varicella experiment. There was no eureka moment, says Weller, just painstaking caution. Some days later, Weller recalls that he "took the fluid, injected it in the brains of some laboratory mice, and starting six days later they became paralyzed. Then you repeat it two or three times before you accept the results that it wasn't a fluke."

    It was, indeed, no fluke. In a wonderful example of scientific seren-dipity, Weller and his colleagues had shown for the first time that polio virus could be grown in test tube-like

    conditions in tissue that was neither brain nor nerve cells. It was an experi-ment that would change the funda-mental understanding of polio. Previous researchers had only been able to grow the virus in nervous tissue. Since polio resulted in paralysis it seemed as though this was, funda-mentally, a nervous system disease. Weller and his colleague's experiment showed otherwise, by definitely demonstrating that polio virus grew in other types of tissue. And soon other experiments would show that polio virus first multiplied in the throat and the lining of the intestine before migrating into the blood and then the nervous system.

    The successful propagation of polio virus in tissue culture would prove to be the key to the successful development of a polio vaccine. And for the nascent held of virology, this and related experiments by Enders, Weller, and Frederick Robbins would help lay the groundwork for practical, test-tube study of viruses using tissue culture. Weller himself went on to be the first person to grow and isolate a number of other important viruses, including varicella (at last), rubella, and some of the cytomegaloviruses. The work on rubella virus and the cytomegaloviruses, agents that cause fetal damage and cerebral palsy, was recognized in 1963 with the receipt by Weller of the Ledlie Prize, Harvard's highest faculty award that is given every two years to the faculty member who has made the most valuable con-tribution for the benefit of mankind.

    Six years later, the significance of that March 1948 experiment was

    Harvard physicians, including Joseph Murray who would eventually win the Nobel Prize, perform first successful kidney transplant at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston.

    U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rules that racial segregation of public schools is illegal in landmark civil rights case, Brown v. Board of

  • heralded around the world when WeHer, Enders, and Robbins went to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize for medicine and physiology. For the 3 6-year-old WeHer, the fame of being a Nobel Laureate was both an honor and a burden.

    A remembrance of Weller written by Eli Chernin, a former colleague in the Department of Tropical Public Health, describes Weller as "subdued" the day he answered the call from Sweden. Chernin wrote: "As his TPH (Tropical Public Health) coHeagues gathered aroundnone of us had seen a Nobelist before, Weller slumped into a chair and remarked to no one in particular, in his quiet uninHected voice, 'Now, I guess we'll have to show them it wasn't a Hash in the pan.'" Even today, WeHer seems wary of the Nobel Prize being the laurel, and the label, that obscures the rest of his work. In a recent interview, WeHer stressed that his July 1954 appoint-ment as Richard Pearson Strong Professor of Tropical Public Health and chair of the Department of Tropical Public Health actually pre-dated the announcement of the Nobel Prize by a few months. "I was very pleased that [my appointment] came through before the Nobel Prize," he said. "Post-Nobel, it might be said that 'he got it because he got the

    No/?e/ LHosp/ta/ /Moratory.

    award,' but I obtained it on my own merits." Weller's one-third share of the 1954 prize was worth about $12.,000. A father of four children, WeHer told Bosfo?? G/o^e that he would use the money to help pay for his children's education. In truth, he says now, there wasn't all that much left over after he paid for plane fare to Sweden and for clothes appro-priate to the ceremony for himself and his wife, Kathleen.

    ^ ^ ^ Y CIRCUMSTANCE AND

    ^ ^ ^ ABILITY, Weller seems to ^ ^ ^ ^ have been ideally suited for

    a distinguished career in science. He was born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his father was chairman of the pathology department at the University of Michigan medical school. Weller's first scientific passions were ornithol-ogy and parasitology, and he has said the happiest times of his life were the

    1955 Nutrition department researchers publish a paper recommending revising the USDA's basic food groups from seven to fourbreads, grains, and cereals; meat, fish, and poultry; fruits and vegetables; and dairy products. A year later, the USDA releases its own Basic Four.

    Dean Snyder and a team of HSPH faculty complete a four-week trip to the Middle East to study trachoma.

    USDA survey finds that 10percentofU.S. families live on nutri-tionally poor diets, down from a decade ago.

  • summers he spent working at the University of Michigan Biological Station in northern Michigan. But to a young man living in the iater years of the Depression, a career in science looked a whole lot less secure than a career in medicine. A practical, down-to-earth person, Weller says, " I selected Harvard because, as I remember, tuition was $400 a year whereas at Hopkins it was more. I didn't even apply to Hopkins."

    It was during a medical school summer vacation that Weller had his first taste of tropical public health. As a Rockefeller Foundation fellow, he worked in various malaria control programs in Florida. Malaria was a major public health problem in the 1 9 3 0 s in the South.