Obituary: Dr Albert Sabin

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The Independent Online
Albert Bruce Sabin, paediatrician, born Bialystok Poland 26 August 1906, research associate New York University College of Medicine 1926- 31, house physician Belleville Hospital New York 1932-33, National Research Council Fellow Lister Institute London 1934, staff Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research New York 1935- 39, Associate Professor of Pediatrics University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and Children's Hospital Research Foundation 1939-43, Professor of Research Pediatrics 1946-60, Distinguished Service Professor 1960-71 (Emeritus), consultant US Army 1941-62 (Consultant Surgeon General 1974-93), Consultant World Health Organisation 1969-86, National Medal of Science (USA) 1970, President Weizmann Institute of Science Rehovot Israel 1970-72 (board of governors 1965- 93), Distinguished Research Professor of Biomedicine Medical University of South Carolina Charleston 1974-82, Senior Expert Consultant Fogarty International Center National Institutes of Health Bethesda Maryland 1984-86, US Medal of Freedom 1986, US Medal of Liberty 1986, married 1935 Sylvia Tregillus (died 1966; two daughters), 1967 Jane Warner (marriage dissolved 1971), 1972 Heloisa Dunshee de Abranches, died Washington DC 3 March 1993.

ALBERT SABIN could be said to have almost single-handedly removed the dreadful scourge of poliomyelitis from the world. Although Jonas Salk developed his killed vaccine before Sabin's attenuated live-virus vaccine became available (Salk's vaccine - which had to be injected - had its field trials in 1954, the year before Sabin's, the first oral vaccine), the live-virus vaccine is the one that has successfully abolished one of the greatest summer worries of young parents. The abolition has been so complete that the worry has been almost forgotten.

Who was Albert Sabin? What kind of man could not only develop a vaccine but, more importantly, without vested interests behind him (he was never remunerated for his efforts) talk countries like the Soviet Union into field-testing his vaccine by mass immunisation when it had not been approved in his own country? Later, when polio was conquered, his goal was no less than eliminating other infectious diseases from the world.

Another question might be, how was one of the world's most feared diseases conquered in a small laboratory in midwest America? That question is easy. Albert Sabin was brilliant, completely goal-oriented and self-driven. Nothing stood in his way for long. The Children's Hospital in Cincinnati was sympathetic with his goals and, through the munificence of Colonel William Cooper Procter, had the funds to provide him with a laboratory and with support in his early years. He came, in 1939, to the Children's Hospital from New York because he could be independent and yet be supported.

To do what he did, Sabin had to be both a salesman and a scientist and he was impressive in both roles. At social gatherings, he was imposing in appearance, self-assured, forceful, yet courtly and genial. On the lecture platform, even when holding forth on nuances of virology to an audience of non-virologists, he was a spellbinder. He once told me that he always singled out one person in the audience, looked him right in the eye and spoke directly to him. Heaven help that person if he were a medical student and he went to sleep. He put great energy into lecturing and he expected his audience to be equally enacgetic in listening.

His ability as a speaker was widely known. At the height of his fame, he recounted at a gathering that every mail brought invitations to speak, that he scanned the letters to determine the amount of the honorarium and then made his decision. As one trying to climb the ladder, I was impressed when he said that one invitation was to speak at the annual convention of the Iowa Bankers Association with an honorarium of dollars 6,000. In those days, bankers rarely asked scientists to speak, let alone with that much of an enticement.

In scientific meetings, he was not so kindly. He was never afraid to speak out to berate a speaker if he thought his data were faulty or the conclusions unwarranted. At the height of the Salk-Sabin rivalry, Time magazine referred to him as 'the acidulous Albert Sabin'. His attitude, however, reflected both his impatience with sloppy thinking and his own strict adherence to scientific principles. His mind was rapier-like. He could recognise flaws, formulate valid criticisms and be on his feet with a comment in milliseconds.

I well recall a luncheon with a potential donor to the Children's Hospital in Cincinnati. His interest in us was in part because a hobby was pursuing a somewhat far-out approach to the treatment of a certain chronic illness. As he described his poorly grounded ideas, Sabin, who had not been warned beforehand, became increasingly agitated and finally broke forth but then, seeing the larger picture, controlled himself and changed the subject. The luncheon bore no fruit.

Of course, his ultra-strict adherence to scientific principles carried over to his laboratory. Those who did not meet his demands, and the demands were heavy both in labour and in cerebration, incurred a wrath which was legendary among scientists in the United States. Hence, most of his fellows and young assistants came from foreign countries. But the storms passed as quickly as they came and we often wondered whether he could recall the episode the next day. And many of his assistants became outstanding virologists.

As a young man working in the same institution but in a different division, I was frequently reminded by my colleagues of these quirks in his personality. As a result, I was never totally comfortable in his presence and was always on guard but I must say that, socially, he fully lived up to the name we had given him, 'Prince Albert'.

(Photograph omitted)