Frederick Robbins Biography (1916-)


Frederick Chapman Robbins was born in 1916, in Auburn, Alabama. He was the eldest of three boys born to Dr. William Jacob Robbins and Christine F. (Chapman) Robbins. His father was a noted plant physiologist and was director of theNew York Botanical Garden. As a medical student at Harvard University, Robbins roomed with Thomas Weller and studied virology under John F. Enders, the men with whom he would later share the Nobel Prize. Service in World War II interrupted his residency at Children's Hospital in Boston, but it provided theopportunity to study viruses and bacterial diseases. In 1948, Robbins married Alice Havemeyer Northrop, who had been Weller's assistant in the Enders laboratory.

That year, Robbins went to work in Enders's lab. Concentrating on pediatrics,he and Weller attempted to grow poliomyelitis in embryonic and intestinal tissue. Prior to this time, polio had only been shown to grow in neural and brain tissue of men or monkeys. Vaccinations from this type of growth were potentially deadly because of something present in this tissue which could not berefined out, so there was no vaccine for polio. Growth of viruses in tissue culture, or in vitro, had historically been difficult because of the threat ofbacterial invasion into the cell cultures. By the 1950s, however, antibiotics had been developed and introduced into the laboratory, such as penicillin and streptomycin, which enabled scientists to begin to grow tissue cultures ofviruses without the threat of a bacterial invasion.

Robbins and Weller, in their polio experiments, were taking advantage of thenew antibiotics. The human intestine cultures grew, which proved for the first time that polio could grow outside neural tissue. This made the feasibilityof a polio vaccine far greater, both because it provided a non-deadly vaccine source and because the supply could be grown more cheaply in vitro than ina live animal. This work was a major breakthrough for scientific research andled to the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Enders, Weller, and Robbins in 1954. Their development provided the technology needed to produce a vaccinationfor polio, which was done in 1953 by virologist Jonas Salk.

Robbins's career then took a turn from laboratory work to the health policy arena. He served as president of the Society for Pediatric Research in 1961 and 1962 and in 1965 became dean of the school of medicine at Case Western Reserve. Robbins also began an intense involvement in national committees on a wide range of topics including human experimentation, Third World health policies, and public food and safety policy. His contribution to science in terms of laboratory research has been memorialized by the receipt of the Nobel Prize. For all his research work, however, it is possible his greater legacy willbe in the area of health policy.

Recent Updates

August 4, 2003: Robbins dies of congestive heart failure on August 4,2003, in Cleveland, Ohio. He was 86. Source: Los Angeles Times,August 6, 2003, p. B10.

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