Thomas H. Weller, M.D.

Thomas H. Weller

 Brief Bio

Thomas Huckle Weller was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on June 15, 1915. The son and grandson of physicians, Weller exhibited an interest in natural science early in life, becoming an amateur ornithologist in his youth. He attended the University of Michigan, where his father, Carl Vernon Weller, was professor and chair of the pathology department. Graduating in 1936 with an A.B. in biology and an M.S. for his thesis on parasites in fish, Weller entered Harvard Medical School where he pursued his interest in parasitology in the Department of Comparative Pathology and Tropical Medicine. With the support of a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, he spent the summer of 1938 in Tallahassee, Florida, working at a malaria laboratory, an experience that convinced him to devote his career to the study of the tropical diseases that hit the developing nations of the world particularly hard.

During his final year of medical school, Weller began working with John Enders, who was then attempting to grow the vaccinia virus in tissue cultures. From Enders, Weller learned several new culture techniques that he adopted in his own research on parasites. In 1940, Weller completed his M.D. and began clinical work at Children's Hospital in Boston.

After the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army Medical Corps and spent from 1942 to 1946 in Puerto Rico as head of the Departments of Bacteriology, Virology, and Parasitology at the U.S. Army Antilles Medical Laboratory. Returning to Boston in 1946, Weller rejoined Enders, who that year had relocated his lab from Harvard Medical School to the newly formed Infectious Disease Research Laboratory at Children's Hospital. In 1949, Weller was named assistant director of the Research Division of Infectious Diseases at Children's Hospital, a position he maintained until 1954, when he was appointed the Richard Pearson Strong Professor and Chair of the Department of Tropical Public Health at the Harvard School of Public Health. He chaired the department for 27 years, stepping down from the position in 1981 and retiring from teaching in 1985, when he was named professor emeritus.

Throughout his career, Weller remained active in public health, serving on several committees established to address tropical diseases, including the Commission on Parasitic Diseases of the American Armed Forces Epidemiological Board (1953–59), the World Health Organization Committee on Medical Research (1967–70), the National Advisory Council of the Centers for Disease Control (1968–72), the Pan American Health Organization Advisory Committee on Medical Research (1970–81), and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases National Advisory Council (1977–80).

He died at his home in Needham, Massachusetts, on August 23, 2008, at the age of 93.

 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

1954 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with with John F. Enders and Frederick C. Robbins “for their discovery of the ability of poliomyelitis viruses to grow in cultures of various types of tissue.”

 AAI Service History

Joined: 1943

Nominating Committee: 1968–1969

 Nobel Prize in Science

Thomas H. Weller, was awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with John F. Enders and Frederick C. Robbins "for their discovery of the ability of poliomyelitis viruses to grow in cultures of various types of tissue."

Weller began working in Enders's laboratory at Children's Hospital in Boston in 1947 and, with Enders's help, successfully cultivated both the mumps and influenza virus in chick embryo and muscle cultures. After a failed attempt to grow varicella (chicken pox) in human embryo cultures in 1948, Weller suggested to Enders and Robbins that they inoculate the remaining embryo cultures with the Lansing strain of poliovirus. When laboratory mice inoculated with the supernatant from these cultures developed hind-leg paralysis, Weller, Enders, and Robbins knew that they had successfully cultivated poliovirus in vitro. They published their preliminary findings in Science in January 1949 and continued to refine their cultivation techniques over the next four years, publishing their final work on poliovirus together in The Journal of Immunology in December 1952. The vast quantities of poliovirus that could be cultivated using their methods made possible the mass production of the Salk killed-virus and Sabin live-virus polio vaccines, leading to the eradication of polio from the United States and opening the possibility of global eradication. Modern virologists continue to use methods based on those developed by Weller, Enders, and Robbins to isolate and produce large quantities of a number of different viruses.

A gifted experimenter with a wide range of interests, Weller made significant contributions to both virology and parasitology during his career. After completing the studies of poliovirus with Enders and Robbins, Weller again turned his attention to the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), successfully isolating the virus in 1952 and running a series of diagnostic experiments that demonstrated that VZV was responsible for both varicella and herpes zoster (shingles). In 1957, his laboratory became the first to cultivate cytomegaloviruses and describe the congenital transmission of the virus. With Franklin A. Neva, Weller isolated the rubella virus in a series of experiments conducted between 1960 and 1962, paving the way for an effective rubella vaccine. Weller's lab also spent decades examining Schistosoma mansoni, the parasite responsible for schistosomiasis. Although it fell short of accomplishing his goal of cultivating the cells of schistosomes, his lab nevertheless made numerous discoveries that allowed for advances in diagnostic testing for the parasite.

Neva later described the series of experiments that led to the cultivation of the rubella virus as "sort of typical of Tom," who was always "a little unorthodox in the techniques he was using." Most investigators at the time would have attempted to isolate the rubella virus using blood samples of infected individuals, but Weller took a different approach. When his 10-year-old son, Robert, fell ill to German measles in 1960, Weller inoculated human amnion tissue with Robert's urine. After a few weeks without any noticeable developments, many scientists would have given up on the experiment, but Weller remained "very patient." "He was very persistent, dogged," recalled Neva. When the cultures finally began to show signs of change, they were "very subtle." "Most people would have felt they were non-specific," said Neva. "But Tom was convinced that a virus was present." Enlisted by Weller to help confirm the results, Neva collected samples from a few other infected students in the Boston area, replicated the experiment, and obtained the same results.

 Awards and Honors

  • E. Mead Johnson Award, 1953
  • Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1954
  • Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1955
  • Member, National Academy of Science, 1964
  • Member, Institute of Medicine, 1970
  • Weinstein Award, Cerebral Palsy Association, 1973
  • Bristol Award, Infectious Diseases Society of America, 1980
  • Honorary fellow, Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 1987
  • Walter Reed Medal, American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 1996

 Institutional/Biographical Links