Thomas Huckle Weller

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Thomas Huckle Weller


American Physician, Virologist, and Bacteriologist

Thomas Huckle Weller is an American virologist and bacteriologist who, along with Drs. John Franklin Enders (1897-1985) and Fredrick C. Robbins (1916- ), was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine in 1954 for the discovery that the polio-causing virus could be cultivated in a test tube. This was the breakthrough required in order to mass-produce a polio vaccine.

Weller was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on June 15, 1915. His father, Carl V. Weller, was a pathologist and chairman of the department of pathology at the University of Michigan Medical School. Weller attended the University of Michigan, obtaining both his bachelor's and master's degrees there. He followed his father's footsteps into medicine by attending Harvard Medical School. In his senior year, he had the opportunity to work with Dr. John Franklin Enders on test tube (in vitro) virus cultivation. This work was important because during this time period the study of viruses was conducted primarily on monkeys, which was expensive and time consuming. In some cases mice, or in rare cases human patients, were used to study viruses and so it was imperative that some other method of study be developed that was cheaper and less time consuming. This was the focus of the experiments Enders was conducting, and Weller had the opportunity to assist with this ground-breaking work. Weller graduated in 1940 with his medical degree.

In the years that followed, Weller developed his career first as an intern of medicine, then a teaching fellow of bacteriology at Harvard, followed by a research fellow of tropical medicine and pediatrics, and an intern of bacteriology and pathology at Children's Hospital in Boston. During World War II, Weller served in the Army at the Antilles Department Medical Laboratory, where he was in charge of studies in parasitology, bacteriology, and virology.

Following the war, Weller reunited with Enders at Harvard and became the assistant director of the infectious disease laboratory at Children's Medical Center. At this time, polio cases were occurring in epidemic numbers across the United States and the world. The polio virus infects the nerve cells in the spinal cord that are responsible for supplying nerve impulses to the muscles. By doing so, the signals to the muscles are interrupted and the result is paralysis. This often results in the death of the nerve cell, which leads to permanent paralysis. Many people were crippled by this disease. During this period of polio epidemics, Dr. Weller, along with Drs. Enders and Robbins, continued to experiment with in vitro virus cultivation. They discovered that the polio virus could be successfully cultivated and recognized in non-nerve tissue. This made it possible to provide a virtually endless supply of virus for vaccine production and finally control the polio epidemics. It also made it unnecessary to experiment with monkeys, mice, and human patients. For this the three doctors were awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine in 1954.

In the same year he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Weller was made Richard Pearson Strong professor and the chairman of the tropical public health department at the Harvard School of Public Health. Weller went on to experiment with other diseases and later, with Franklin Neva, demonstrated the common causes of shingles, a skin condition marked with blisters and itching on the trunk of the body, and chicken pox.


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Thomas Huckle Weller

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