Growing Pathogens in Tissue Cultures: Fifty Years in Academic Tropical Medicine, Pediatric, and Virology
This is the autobiography of Thomas H. Weller, M.D., a research scientist who helped develop the technique of growing viruses in tissue culture, and who became a world leader in the study of tropical diseases. The development of tissue-culture techniques transformed the field of virology. It led to the identification of many new infectious agents—several of which were discovered by Weller—and led to the development of many viral vaccines, starting with the Salk and Sabin vaccines that have nearly eliminated polio. For this work, Weller shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1954 along with Drs. John Enders and Frederick Robbins.
The book relates the story of Weller’s life as a virologist. It describes in detail the development of tissue-culture techniques, starting with the landmark demonstration that polio virus could be grown in human tissue culture. The book relates the events surrounding the award, at an unusually young age, of the Nobel Prize. It discusses the science and the politics involved in creating the Salk polio vaccine, and candidly describes scientific errors that led some improperly-prepared early batches of the Salk vaccine to cause polio in some vaccine recipients. Also described in detail are Weller’s discoveries of varicella-zoster virus —the cause of chicken pox and zoster (“shingles”); human cytomegaloviruses—the cause of birth defects and of disease in patients with impaired immune systems; and rubella virus—the cause of “German measles” and of birth defects.
The book also tells the story of Weller’s career as a leader in the field of tropical medicine. He studied tropical diseases in medical school, and fought them as an Army doctor during World War II. Weller became Chair of the Department of Tropical Public Health at the Harvard School of Public Health, building and leading that world-renowned department for nearly 30 years. He also taught tropical medicine to several generations of Harvard medical students. Many of Weller’s students have become distinguished figures in tropical medicine around the world. The book recounts the science, as well as the politics, of building academic tropical medicine at Harvard and in universities and health departments. It also summarizes the building of the Harvard School of Public Health.
Growing Pathogens in Tissue Cultures describes how a child fascinated with animals and surrounded by mentors—who taught him about the animal kingdom and introduced him to laboratory science—became a highly honored biomedical scientist.
“ . . . The story of how a ‘failed’ experiment on varicella-virus culture lead to the in-vitro growth of the polio virus, when four left-over cultures were injected with the polio virus, is amazing. This momentous event had far-reaching public-health implications that will culminate, in the foreseeable future, in the global elimination of polio . . . One of Weller’s final reflections is shared by many of us in academic tropical health: ’nothing makes me more proud than the people I have helped to train, and what they have gone on to accomplish.' Fortunate are the ones who were trained by Tom Weller.” —Annals of Tropical Medicine and Parasitology
“ . . . Ces mémoires, provenant d’un acteur de premier plan de la recherche médicale, constituent sans aucun doute un précieux document pour l’histoire des sciences.” —GESNERUS
See also “Advances in Virology: Weller and Robbins,” NJM, October 7, 2004, pages 1483–1485.