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Weller, Thomas (1915- )

Weller, Thomas (1915- )

American physician

Thomas Weller was corecipient, with John F. Enders and Frederick Robbins, of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1954. This award was given for the trio's successful growth of the poliomyelitis (polio) virus in a non-neural tissue culture . This development was significant in the fight against the crippling disease polio, and eventually led to the development, by Jonas Salk in 1953, of a successful vaccination against the virus. It also revolutionized viral work in the laboratory and aided the recognition of many new types of viruses . Weller also distinguished himself with his studies of human parasites and the viruses that cause rubella and chickenpox.

Thomas Huckle Weller was born June 15, 1915, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His parents were Elsie A. (Huckle) and Dr. Carl V. Weller. He received his B.S. in 1936 and M.S. in 1937, both from the University of Michigan, where his father was chair of the pathology department. He continued his studies at Harvard Medical School, where he met and roomed with his future Nobel corecipient Robbins. In 1938, Weller received a fellowship from the international health division of the Rockefeller Foundation, which allowed him to study public health in Tennessee and malaria in Florida, topics which first interested him during his undergraduate years.

Weller graduated from Harvard with magna cum laude honors in parasitology, receiving his M.D. in 1940. He also received a fellowship in tropical medicine and a teaching fellowship in bacteriology. He completed an internship in pathology and bacteriology (1941) at Children's Hospital in Boston. He then began a residency at Children's, with the intention of specializing in pediatrics, before enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War II.

Weller served in the Army Medical Corps from 1942 to 1945. He was initially given teaching assignments in tropical medicine, but he was soon made officer in charge of bacteriology and virology work in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His major research there related to pneumonia and the parasitic disease schistosomiasis, an infection that is centered in the intestine and damages tissue and the circulatory system. Before his military service ended, he moved to the Army Medical School in Washington D.C. Upon his discharge in 1945, Weller was married to Kathleen Fahey, with whom he had two sons and two daughters. Returning to Boston's Children's Hospital, he finished his residency and began a post-doctoral year working with Enders.

During 1948, Weller was working with the mumps virus, which Enders had been researching since the war. After one experiment, Weller had a few tubes of human embryonic tissue left over, so he and Enders decided to see what the virus poliomyelitis might do in them. A small amount of success prompted the duo, who had been joined in their research by Robbins, to try growing the virus in other biological mediums, including human foreskin and the intestinal cells of a mouse. The mouse intestine did not produce anything, but the trio finally had significant viral growth with human intestinal cells. This was the first time poliomyelitis had been grown in human or simian tissue other than nerve or brain. Using antibiotics to ward off unwanted bacterial invasion, the scientists were able to isolate the virus for study.

Once poliomyelitis was grown and isolated in tissue cultures it was possible to closely study the nature of the virus, which in turn made it possible for Salk to create a vaccine in 1953. Besides leading to an inhibitor against a debilitating disease, a major result of the trio's development was a decrease in the need for laboratory animals. As Weller was quoted saying in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, "In the instance of poliomyelitis, one culture tube of human or monkey cells became the equivalent of one monkey." In times prior, viruses had to be injected into living animals to monitor their potency. Now, with tissue culture growth, cell changes were apparent under the microscope , showing the action of the virus and eliminating the need for the animals. The techniques for growing cells in tissue cultures developed by Weller and his associates were not only applicable to the poliomyelitis virus, however. They were soon copied by many other labs and scientists and quickly led to the identification, control, and study of several previously unrecognized virus types. For their work, and the improvements in scientific research it made possible, Weller, Enders, and Robbins shared the 1954 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Concurrent with his work with Enders and Robbins, Weller was named assistant director of the research division of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital in 1949. He held this position until 1954. At the same time, he began teaching at Harvard in tropical medicine and tropical public health, moving from instructor to associate professor. In 1953, Weller and Robbins shared the Mead Johnson Prize for their contributions to pediatric research. Then, in 1954, Weller was named Richard Pearson Strong Professor of Tropical Public Health and chair of the public health department at Harvard. As a consequence, he moved his research facilities to the Harvard Medical School. Later, he was appointed director of the Center for Prevention of Infectious Diseases at the Harvard School of Public Health.

From the end of World War II until 1982, Weller also continued his research on two types of helminths, trichinella spiralis and schistosoma mansoni. Helminths are intestinal parasites, and these two cause, respectively, trichinosis, which can also severely affect the human musculature, and schistosomiasis. Weller was concerned with the parasites' basic biology and performed various diagnostic studies on them. His contributions to current understanding of these parasites are significant, advancing an understanding of the ailments they cause.

Weller spent a portion of the same period (1957 to 1973) establishing the basic available knowledge concerning cytomegalovirus (commonly known as CMV), which causes cell enlargement in various organs. Weller's most important finding in this area regarded congenital transmission of both CMV and rubella, a virus also known as German measles . A pregnant woman infected with either of these viruses may pass the infection on to her fetus. Weller showed that infected newborns excreted viral strains in their feces, providing another source for the spread of the diseases. His findings became significant when it was also learned that children born to infected mothers often risked birth defects.

In 1962, Weller, along with Franklin Neva, was able to grow and study German Measles in tissue cultures. These two also went on to grow and isolate the chickenpox virus. Subsequently, Weller was the first to show the common origin of the varicella virus, which causes chicken pox, and the herpes zoster virus, which causes shingles. In 1971, Weller was the first to prove the airborne transmission of pneumocystis carinii, a form of pneumonia that later appeared as a frequent side effect of the human immunodeficiency virus commonly known as HIV .

Weller was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1964. In addition, he served on advisory committees of the World Health Organization , the Pan American Health Organization, the Agency for International Development, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. He continued his position at Harvard until 1985, when he became professor emeritus. While at Harvard, he helped establish the Public Health Department's international reputation. In 1988, Weller gave the first John F. Enders Memorial Lecture to the Infectious Disease Society of America. In addition to his Nobel Prize, Weller was the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees during his career.

See also Laboratory techniques in immunology; Virology; Virus replication; Viruses and responses to viral infection

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Robbins, Frederick Chapman

Frederick Chapman Robbins, 1916–2003, American physician, b. Auburn, Ala., grad. Univ. of Missouri, 1938, M.D. Harvard, 1940. He served on the staff of Children's Hospital, Boston, and at Harvard, and from 1952 to 1966 was director of pediatrics at Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital. At Case Western Reserve Univ. he served as professor of pediatrics (1952–80), dean of the medical school (1966–80), and university professor (1980–87). He shared the 1954 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with J. F. Enders and T. H. Weller for their work in growing polio viruses in cultures of different tissues, a breakthrough that enabled the development of polio and other vaccines and that had great significance in the development of virology and cell biology.

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