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Dr. Frederick Robbins, 86; Won Nobel Prize

August 06, 2003|Rosie Mestel | Times Staff Writer

Dr. Frederick Chapman Robbins, who shared a Nobel Prize in 1954 for discovering how to grow the polio virus in the laboratory, has died. He was 86.

Robbins, who died Monday of congestive heart failure in Cleveland, was emeritus dean of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, with which he had been associated for more than 50 years.

The groundbreaking research, conducted at Harvard Medical School with scientists John F. Enders and Dr. Thomas H. Weller, enabled the development not only of the polio vaccine but other vaccines against human viral diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella. Their virus-culturing methods led to many discoveries about the molecular nature of viruses and their wide involvement in human disease, including in certain cancers.

Robbins was born in Auburn, Ala., in 1916, the son of a botanist who later became director of the New York Botanical Garden. After studying at the University of Missouri, where he played polo and won ribbons for his horsemanship, Robbins attended Harvard Medical School, obtaining a medical degree in 1940.

During World War II, Robbins served in a diagnostic laboratory in Italy, studying outbreaks of hepatitis among the troops, and a disease known as Q fever. After the war, he resumed his training in pediatrics at Children's Hospital in Boston, then secured a fellowship in the laboratory of Enders, a Harvard virologist.

When Robbins, Enders and Robbins' former classmate Weller began their studies together, scientists had made great strides in fighting bacterial diseases. The antibiotics penicillin and streptomycin had recently been developed and the death rate from bacterial infections had fallen by more than 90% since the start of the 20th century.

But viruses were proving stickier foes, in part because they were extremely difficult to culture in the laboratory.

"To study polio virus, you had to inject the monkey spinal cord or brain with material from polio patients and then you had to kill the monkeys and examine their spinal cords and brains -- it was really very complicated," said Dr. Samuel Katz, professor of pediatrics at Duke University in Durham, N.C., who formerly worked with Robbins.

In 1949, Robbins, Enders and Weller reported that they had grown polio virus in cultures of embryonic nerve, skin, muscle and gut cells.

They demonstrated that the appearance of the cells changed as the virus multiplied and that such culturing could be used to detect the virus in samples from sick patients.

The finding "really opened a door -- since then, hundreds of viruses have been grown in culture but no one had ever done it before," Katz said. "The significance went way beyond polio -- it opened up the field of human virology."

The work, for which the scientists were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology for medicine in 1954, enabled Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin to grow polio virus and to develop vaccines against polio in the 1950s and early 1960s.

At one time, the disease -- which primarily attacks children, invading nerve cells and causing permanent paralysis -- crippled thousands each year. Some were kept alive only through the use of "iron lungs" to control their breathing.

Now, through an effort spearheaded in 1988, polio cases have fallen from 350,000 cases a year to 1,919 in 2002, and the disease is endemic to just seven countries. Robbins headed an independent committee involved in overseeing the eradication effort in the Americas.

"He once said to me that he hoped he'd live to see polio eradicated from the world," said Dr. Thomas M. Daniel, professor emeritus of medicine and international health at Case Western Reserve University, and a colleague of Robbins. "He didn't quite make it, but he's not far off."

Robbins came to Cleveland in 1952, becoming a professor and ultimately dean of what is now Case Western Reserve University's School of Medicine. He retired in 1980.

From 1980 to 1985, he was president of the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., and was influential in shaping national policy toward vaccine development and safety and in action to combat the newly emerging AIDS epidemic.

Colleagues described Robbins as a warm mentor and pediatrician who cared greatly about the plight of children. Among many activities, he helped launch a Center for Adolescent Health at his university in 1990 and became its director in 1992.

Robbins organized a collaboration between his medical school and the government of Uganda to fight AIDS and tuberculosis infections in that country; and for a decade he headed the India-U.S. Vaccine Action Program, aimed at helping develop vaccines tailored for use in India.

Robbins is survived by his wife, Alice Northrop Robbins; daughters, Alice and Louise; and his brothers, Daniel and William.

Memorial donations may be made to the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine Office of Development and Alumni Affairs, 10900 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, Ohio 44106-4923, or to the Harvard Medical School Office of Resource Development, 401 Park Drive, Boston, MA 02215.

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