Campus & Community

Thomas Weller, Nobel laureate, HSPH professor emeritus, dies at 93

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Thomas H. Weller, a Nobel Prize winner in 1954 and Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) professor emeritus, passed away on Aug. 23. He was 93.

Weller received the Nobel Prize for medicine with John Enders and Frederick Robbins for discovering how to grow poliomyelitis viruses in culture. This breakthrough laid the foundation for others to develop the polio vaccine and later other vaccines. The discovery demonstrated that scientists could grow viruses in human tissues in test tubes, foregoing the need for laboratory animals, and speeding the way toward other vaccines.

Weller later was involved in isolating and growing varicella-zoster, the cause of chicken pox and shingles, and cytomegalovirus, a member of the herpesvirus family that can cause birth defects. Additionally, he and others isolated the rubella virus, which causes German measles. Weller maintained a lifelong interest in parasitology as well as virology and was keenly interested in the control of schistosomiasis.

“Beyond his pioneering scientific breakthroughs in growing polio in culture and discovering varicella and rubella viruses, all of which made the new vaccines possible, Professor Weller became a champion for public health and the effort to focus the best of science on the diseases and health problems of the poorest people on the globe,” said Barry R. Bloom, dean of HSPH. “His impact has been incalculable, and his legacy will be something cherished by generations to come at HSPH and far beyond.”

Weller earned a B.A. from the University of Michigan in 1936. A year later, he received a master of science degree. He came to Harvard Medical School (HMS) in the 1930s, where he undertook studies in what was then the Department of Comparative Pathology and Tropical Medicine. His interests broadened to include general infectious diseases and viruses. Weller graduated from Harvard Medical School (HMS) in 1940 and received clinical training at Children’s Hospital Boston. Two years later, he began serving at a laboratory in Puerto Rico with the Medical Corps of the U.S. Army, where he worked on malaria control.

After the war, Weller returned to Children’s Hospital and HMS. The Department of Comparative Pathology and Tropical Medicine was renamed the Department of Tropical Public Health and was transferred from HMS to HSPH. In 1954, Weller was named the Richard Pearson Strong Professor of Tropical Public Health and became head of the department, a position he held until 1981. (In 1997, the Department of Tropical Public Health merged with the departments of Cancer Biology and Molecular and Cellular Toxicology to form Immunology and Infectious Diseases and Cancer Cell Biology.) Weller achieved emeritus status in 1985.

“Thomas Weller was one of the great scientists of the 20th century and a leader in neglected tropical diseases,” said Dyann Wirth, chair of the HSPH Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases and Richard Pearson Strong Professor of Infectious Diseases. “He inspired many during his lifetime, and his vision led an entire field for many decades. His legacy is one to be remembered.”

In addition to his Nobel Prize, Weller received the E. Mead Johnson Award of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Bristol Award of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the George Ledlie Prize of Harvard University, and the VZV Research Foundation Scientific Achievement Award. He directed the Commission on Parasitic Diseases of the American Armed Forces Epidemiological Board. In 1964, he was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. He has held positions with the U.S. Public Health Service, World Health Organization, and U.S. Agency for International Development. In 1996, he received the Walter Reed Medal from the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. He wrote an autobiography in 2004 titled “Growing Pathogens in Tissue Cultures: Fifty Years in Academic Tropical Medicine, Pediatrics, and Virology.”

His family plans a private service. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Needham Public Library, 1139 Highland Ave., Needham, MA 02494. HSPH will honor Weller’s life and achievements with a memorial service during the upcoming academic year.