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The American Association of Immunologists

Frederick Chapman Robbins, Ph.D.

Frederick Chapman Robbins, Ph.D. (1916–2003)

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Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

1954, with John F. Enders (AAI '36, president 1952–53) and Thomas H. Weller (AAI '52) “for their discovery of the ability of poliomyelitis viruses to grow in cultures of various types of tissue.”

AAI

Joined: 1952

Scientific Accomplishments

Frederick C. Robbins, Ph.D., AAI '52, was awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with John F. Enders (AAI '36, president 1952–53) and Thomas H. Weller (AAI '52) "for their discovery of the ability of poliomyelitis viruses to grow in cultures of various types of tissue."1

When Robbins began working with Enders and Weller in 1948, poliovirus had been cultivated only in the nervous tissue of laboratory animals. Robbins, Weller, and Enders sought an alternative to this costly and painstaking process by attempting to grow poliovirus in cultures of other tissue types. When Weller succeeded in demonstrating that supernatant from human embryonic skin and muscle cultures inoculated with poliovirus caused paralysis in laboratory mice, Robbins repeated the experiment using intestinal cultures and achieved the same results, confirming that they had successfully cultivated poliovirus in vitro.2 Their methods allowed scientists to prepare large amounts of the virus, paving the way for the mass production of the Salk killed-virus and Sabin live-virus polio vaccines.

Robbins, Enders, and Weller not only made the global eradication of polio a viable goal, but they also revolutionized the field of virology: researchers continue to use their tissue-culture methods to isolate and grow viruses in quantities previously unimaginable.

After leaving Enders's laboratory in 1952, Robbins turned his attention primarily to teaching, mentoring, and playing the role of what one of his former students, Adel Mahmoud (AAI '76), has described as "a statesman of science."3 It is for his leadership and mentoring skills, more than his work in the lab, that his students and colleagues remember him. "Dr. Robbins was what you would always like someone to be as a mentor," said Samuel L. Katz (AAI '64), a virologist and pediatrician at Duke University, upon learning of Robbins's death.4 Joyce McCann, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, who once found herself in disagreement with Robbins while working on an Institute of Medicine study he chaired, recalled his political acumen. He had "an ability to deal with groups of people who are at opposite ends of the spectrum," McCann said. "He can see their arguments and bring them together without compromising his own position."5

Biography

Born in Auburn, Alabama, on August 25, 1916, Robbins grew up in Columbia, Missouri, where his father was a professor of botany at the University of Missouri. Robbins received an A.B. in 1936 from the University of Missouri and entered the school's two-year medical program, earning a B.S. in 1938. He completed his studies at Harvard Medical School, where he received his M.D. in 1940. Robbins entered his postgraduate training as resident physician in bacteriology at the Children's Hospital Medical Center in Boston, but his training there was interrupted in 1942 when he joined the military, serving as the chief of the Viral and Rickettsial Disease Section of the Fifteenth Medical General Laboratory of the U.S. Army. He spent the war years in North Africa, Italy, and the United States conducting research on hepatitis, typhus, Q fever, and mumps.6

After the war, Robbins returned to his position at Children's Hospital, where he completed his training in 1948. With the financial support of a fellowship from the National Research Council, he reunited with his former medical school roommate, Thomas Weller, in John Enders's newly established Infectious Disease Research Laboratory at Children's Hospital. Robbins remained in Boston until 1952, when he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to accept a dual appointment as chief of pediatrics at City Hospital and professor of pediatrics at Western Reserve University School of Medicine. In 1966, Robbins was appointed dean of the medical school, a position he held until 1980, when he relocated to Washington, D.C., to serve as president of the Institute of Medicine for a five-year period. He returned to Cleveland and Case Western Reserve University7 as professor emeritus in epidemiology in 1985. Over the next two decades, his immense talent for institution building was on display as he established university-wide centers for international health and adolescent health and began an initiative that united Case Western Reserve with the government of Uganda and Makerere University in a joint effort to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS in the African nation.8

Robbins's commitment to public service and public health led him to work tirelessly as a consultant and advisor to the U.S. Public Health Service, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Armed Forces Epidemiological Board, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, NASA, the Pan American Health Organization, and the World Health Organization.9

Robbins died on Aug. 4, 2003, in Cleveland at the age of 86.

Awards and Honors

Robbins was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1962), the National Academy of Science (1972), the Institute of Medicine (1973), and the American Philosophical Society (1972). He attained the rank of major in the U.S. Army and was awarded a Bronze Star for Distinguished Service (1945) before retiring from the military in 1946.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, his awards and honors include the E. Mead Johnson Award (1953), the Abraham Flexner Award for Distinguished Service to Medical Education (1987), and the Benjamin Franklin Medal for Distinguished Achievement in the Sciences (1999).



Notes:

1 "The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine—Summary," Nobelprize.org, http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1954.

2 Adel Mahmoud, "Frederick C. Robbins, 1916–2003," Biographical Memoirs (Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 2006): 7–8. The first of several articles the Enders laboratory published on cultivation of poliovirus appeared as J. F. Enders, T. H. Weller, and F. C. Robbins, "Cultivation of the Lansing Strain of Poliomyelitis Virus in Cultures of Various Human Embryonic Tissues," Science 109, no. 2822 (1949): 85–87. The final two articles appeared in The Journal of Immunology in December 1952: T. H. Weller, J. F. Enders, F. C. Robbins, and M. B. Stoddard, "Studies on the Cultivation of Poliomyelitis Viruses in Tissue Culture: I. The Propagation of Poliomyelitis Viruses in Suspended Cell Cultures of Various Human Tissues," The Journal of Immunology 69, no. 6 (1952): 645–71; F. C. Robbins, T. H. Weller, and J. F. Enders, "Studies on the Cultivation of Poliomyelitis Viruses in Tissue Culture: II. The Propagation of the Poliomyelitis Viruses in Roller-Tube Cultures of Various Human Tissues," ibid., 673–94.

3 Mahmoud, "Frederick C. Robbins," 3.

4 Katz quoted in Lawrence K. Altman, "F. C. Robbins, Virus Researcher, Dies at 86," New York Times, 5 August 2003, B7.

5 McCann quoted in Eliot Marshall, "Institute of Medicine Names Robbins President," Science 207, no. 4436 (1980): 1184–85.

6 Mahmoud, "Frederick C. Robbins," 4–6; "Frederick C. Robbins—Biography," Nobelprize.org, http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1954/robbins.html.

7 Western Reserve University merged with Case Institute of Technology in 1967 and became Case Western Reserve University.

8 Mahmoud, "Frederick C. Robbins," 9–13.

9 Ibid., 13.

 


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