Saturday, 2:15 PM
Thomas Weller, 93; Won Nobel Prize for Polio
By Mark Feeney, Globe Staff
Dr. Thomas H. Weller, who shared the 1954 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his research on the polio virus, died Saturday. He was 93.
At the time of his death, Dr. Weller was Richard Pearson Strong professor of tropical medicine emeritus at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Dr. Weller won the prize along with two Children's Hospital colleagues, John F. Enders and Frederick C. Robbins. In 1949, they discovered a way to grow the polio virus in safe tissue cultures. Their discovery led to the development of the Salk and Sabin vaccines against the disease. It also underlay the development of vaccines for other viral diseases such as measles and chicken pox and has proved to be a crucial aid to cancer research.
In a 2003 New York Times interview, George Miller, a Yale virologist, described the breakthrough by Dr. Weller and his colleagues as "one of the major discoveries in virology, cell biology, and molecular biology in the 20th century."
Some 600,000 Americans suffered from polio in the 20th century. At its height, in 1952, about 58,000 cases were reported. Polio's emotional impact was vastly disproportionate to the number of victims, however. The fact that it commonly struck children, could have such devastating effects (including death and paralysis), and its epidemiological unpredictability made it deeply feared.
Dr. Weller's work was not restricted to polio. He also isolated and for the first time grew the viruses that cause chicken pox and shingles, in 1955. In 1963, he and three other researchers discovered the virus that causes German measles.
Dr. Weller was a notable figure in the world of tropical medicine. From 1953 to 1959, he was director of the Commission on Parasitic Diseases of the American Armed Forces Epidemiological Board. He headed the department of tropical public health at Harvard from 1954 to 1981. He was a past president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene and was awarded the organization's Walter Reed Medal in 1996.
In 1947, Dr. Weller joined Enders in organizing Children's research division of infectious diseases. Robbins, a medical school classmate, joined Dr. Weller and Enders in 1948.
In 1949, Dr. Weller and his colleagues grew the poliomyelitis virus for the first time outside human or monkey nerve cells. Using a combination of human embryonic skin and muscle tissue, they demonstrated that polio originates in the body outside the nervous system and that paralysis develops only when the disease has spread to the brain and spinal cells. It had been believed that the polio virus fed on nerve tissue, not muscle tissue.
Before this work by Dr. Weller and his colleagues, researchers had been restricted to studying the polio virus in eggs, mice, monkeys, and other animals. Their work greatly facilitated the study of the virus. Within a few years Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin developed their vaccines for the disease.
In 1954, the year Dr. Weller, Enders, and Robbins won the Nobel Prize, there were 28,000 cases of polio in the United States. Less than a decade later, that number was 121.
Asked his response to news of the award, Dr. Enders said, "I am so happy that the three of us who have worked together have shared this honor. It is particularly gratifying that the team which originally worked on the problem should be rewarded together. In a way, it is symbolic, because no discovery in the scientific world is due to the efforts of any one man, but always results from the work of many people.
Dr. Weller's renown as a scientific researcher did not lead him to ignore more mundane concerns of medical practice. Addressing Harvard Medical School's 1963 commencement, he noted that medical education "tends to ignore the most practical challenge presented by man as a social entity." There's more to medicine, he declared, than "dollar investment in men and machines."
Weller lived in Needham. He is survived by his wife of 60-plus years, Kathleen (Fahey); two sons, Peter and Robert; one daughter, Janet; and six grandchildren.
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