Professor Frederick C. Robbins

Joint winner of the Nobel Prize for his work on the polio virus
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The Independent Online

Joint winner of the Nobel Prize for his work on the polio virus

Frederick Chapman Robbins, virologist, paediatrician and medical educator: born Auburn, Alabama 25 August 1916; Research Fellow in Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School 1948-52; Professor of Pediatrics, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland 1952-80, Dean, School of Medicine 1966-80 (Emeritus), Professor of Community Health 1973-80, University Professor Emeritus 1985-2003; Director, Department of Pediatrics and Contagious Diseases, Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital 1952-66; Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine (jointly with John F. Enders and Thomas H. Weller) 1954; President, Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences 1980-85; married 1948 Alice Northrup (two daughters); died Cleveland, Ohio 4 August 2003.

Frederick C. Robbins was one of the most distinguished medical scientists and educators of our times. Beginning while a medical student and continuing after military service during the Second World War, he worked in the Boston virology laboratory of John Enders, together with his friend and classmate Thomas Weller. The work of this team led to the cultivation of the poliovirus and paved the way for the subsequent development of polio vaccines.

Indeed, the fundamental techniques developed for this accomplishment made possible the cultivation of the viruses causing such other illnesses as measles and the subsequent development of vaccines protecting against these diseases. The recent cultivation of the coronavirus causing Sars used these techniques. The poliovirus work was recognised by the award to the three investigators of the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1954.

Robbins was born in Auburn, Alabama, in 1916. His undergraduate university education was at the University of Missouri, from which he received the Bachelor of Arts degree in 1936. He began his medical education at Missouri, but transferred to Harvard University after two years, receiving the Doctor of Medicine degree in 1940. He then began hospital training at Boston Children's Hospital, a Harvard affiliate, but his training there was interrupted by entry into the US Army Medical Corps in 1942. He served with the 15th Medical General Laboratory as Chief of the Viral and Rickettsial Disease Section. He was stationed in North Africa and Italy and conducted research on hepatitis, typhus and Q fever.

Following the war he returned to Enders's laboratory. After working initially on mumps and enteric viruses, Robbins and Weller took up Enders's suggestion to try growing poliovirus using the techniques they had developed. Success came quickly. So closely did John Enders and his two research fellows work together that it is difficult to sort out the separate contributions of the individual team members. However, Robbins was the lead author on the paper describing the cytopathic effect that allowed recognition of viral growth in the cultures of monkey kidney cells; it was probably his observation.

It was in the laboratory that Fred Robbins met and fell in love with Alice Havemeyer Northrup. The daughter of John Northrup, a Nobel laureate in Chemistry, she was working as a technician in the lab. They were married in 1948.

In 1952 Robbins moved to Cleveland, Ohio, as Professor of Pediatrics at Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) and Director of the Department of Pediatrics and Infectious Diseases at Cleveland City Hospital (now MetroHealth Center). At that time the Western Reserve University School of Medicine was embarking on a major curriculum reform that led to the abandonment of traditional discipline-based courses and institution of interdisciplinary committee teaching. Robbins enthusiastically supported the innovations and served as chairman of the school's Committee on Medical Education from 1958 to 1962.

He continued his virology research in his hospital laboratory, which served as a reference laboratory during a number of vaccine trials and in which were trained many individuals who went on to major academic and pharmaceutical positions.

In 1966 Fred Robbins was named Dean of the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. At that time, the dean's office was located in a small house near the medical school and adjacent university hospitals. But much of Robbins's business was not transacted there. Quiet and modest, yet friendly and outgoing, he was more likely to collar a professor or student in a corridor than in his office. His deanship years saw an expansion of the school of medicine and a continuing effort at curriculum reform and revitalisation.

In 1980, Robbins resigned his deanship to assume the presidency of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. Chartered by the United States Congress but not a governmental agency, the academy draws together scientists who consider issues of national import and plays a major role in shaping public policy. In 1985 he retired from the Institute of Medicine and returned to Case Western Reserve University as a distinguished University Professor Emeritus.

"Emeritus" is an academic euphemism for retired, but to Fred Robbins it meant nothing of the sort. He maintained an office in the medical school "C" near the main entrance where he could easily confront his colleagues in corridor C; he was on the scene every day. He served on many national and international bodies including several with the Pan American Health Organization.

In 1990 he became Chairman of the PAHO International Commission for the Certification of Poliomyelitis Eradication in the Americas. Unlike the smallpox virus, which is transmitted aerially and causes the only other disease to have been eradicated, poliovirus is excreted into the environment, and it was not sufficient for health officials simply to interrupt transmission by quarantining cases. Thus, in addition to establishing reporting criteria and immunisation goals, the commission had to develop criteria for monitoring viral excretion.

In 1996, coincident with Robbins's 80th birthday, the commission he chaired certified the eradication of poliomyelitis from the Americas. The programme has now been expanded globally, and total eradication is likely to be achieved within the next few years. Mass immunisations using vaccines produced in cultures of the type developed by Enders, Robbins and Weller have made this possible.

As the 20th century approached its end, Aids became the viral disease at centre-stage, and Robbins became increasingly concerned about this new plague. In 1987 the United States National Institutes of Health announced a competition for awards under a new programme to establish international collaborations for Aids research. Robbins saw the announcement and recruited three of his faculty colleagues to join him in traveling to Kampala, Uganda.

Thus was born a multidisciplinary collaboration between Case Western Reserve University and Makerere University in Kampala that continues to the present, now much expanded, focusing on Aids and tuberculosis. The collaboration uses offices at Mulago Hospital that were formerly used by the British Medical Research Council for its studies of the treatment of tuberculosis. Robbins made many trips to Uganda, and both in Cleveland and in Kampala his leadership was continually felt.

In 1990 Robbins convinced the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine to establish a Center for Adolescent Health, and in 1992 he became the Director. The activities of this centre focus primarily upon the under-served adolescent children of Cleveland's inner-city neighbourhoods.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Robbins received many honours, awards and honorary degrees, including the first Mead Johnson Award in 1953, the Kimble Methodology Research Award in 1954, the Ohio Governor's Award in 1971, the Abraham Flexner Award of the American Association of Medical Colleges in 1987, and the Benjamin Franklin Medal of the American Philosophical Society in 1999. At Case Western Reserve University the east wing of the medical school was named the Frederick C. Robbins Building in 2002. The Frederick C. Robbins Professorship in Child and Adolescent Health was endowed by gifts from his friends in 2002, and the Frederick C. Robbins Traveling Fellowship for medical students pursuing international electives in 2000.

Fred Robbins was a kind and modest person, an inspiring leader, a person whose sharp mind never ceased generating ideas; a wise mentor, a revered teacher and a friend of and advocate for the children of the world. "Come ye, let us go up to the mountain . . . and he will teach us his ways and we will walk in his paths" (Isaiah ii,3). Robbins stood at the top of his mountain; he never failed to teach us or lead us in his paths.

Thomas M. Daniel