Hans Zinsser Biography (1878-1940)

bacteriologist, immunologist

Hans Zinsser was the youngest son of a German immigrant who owned a chemicalproducts company in New York, New York. After a privileged childhood including private schooling, study abroad, and European travel, Zinsser attended Columbia College where his poetic imagination flourished along with his scientific curiosity. When it came time for him to decide on a profession, he chose science and earned an M.D. and M.A. from the College of Physicians and Surgeonsof Columbia University in 1903. He became a professor of bacteriology and immunology at Stanford University in 1911, moved to Columbia in 1913, and thento Harvard Medical School in 1923.

Zinsser's interest in the epidemiology of infectious diseases led him to jointhe American Red Cross Sanitary Commission on its mission to Serbia in 1915where a typhus epidemic had broken out. His investigations of typhus also took him to the Soviet Union in 1923, Mexico in 1931, and China in 1938, studying a group of organisms called Rickettsia--the cause of typhus--which are carried by a louse or a rat flea and transmitted to humans by a bite from the parasites. The diseases spread rapidly in areas of poor sanitation and overcrowding. If left untreated, typhus (from a Greek word meaning cloudy or misty, referring to the altered mental state the disease causes) can result in death in 9-18 days. Zinsser wrote about his research in a lively yet scientificallyaccurate book which he referred to as a "biography of the life history of typhus." The book, Rats, Lice and History, was published in 1935 and dedicated to Charles Nicolle (1866-1936), the French bacteriologist who won the 1928 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his work on the transmission bybody lice of typhus fever from rats to humans. Zinsser's research on typhusproved that there actually are three types of this disease caused by two distinct agents--one carried by lice and the other by rodents. After studying cases in New York and Boston, Massachusetts, Zinsser noted that sporadic typhus,or Brill's disease (named after Dr. Nathan Brill [1860-1925] of New York City who found the disease among immigrants in New York and first described it in 1898), seemed to occur primarily in immigrants from the Soviet Union, and that cases of this disease were mild. Therefore, he hypothesized that these cases were recrudescent or reactivated typhus contracted abroad rather than newinfections. The causative organism was found to be R. prowazekii, thesame louse-borne organism that causes the more severe epidemic typhus. Endemic, or murine (rodent-associated) typhus, caused by R. typhi, (formerly known as R. mooseri and named for Hermann Mooser) is transmitted bythe rat flea. Symptoms are milder than those of epidemic typhus.

In the search for an immunization against typhus, Zinsser and M. Ruiz Castañeda in 1932 discovered antibodies in the blood serum of typhus patients. The scientists knew they needed large quantities of microorganisms to produce a vaccine, so they infected chick embryo yolk sac tissue with Rickettsia. This tissue was used to inoculate normal chick tissue which was then grown on the surface of agar in flasks. Zinsser's work led to new tissue culture methods still used today as standard laboratory procedures. The typhus vaccine developed by Zinsser and his coworkers contains dead Rickettsia which carry markers called antigens. These antigens spark an immune system reaction whether they are alive, weakened, or dead. When detected by the human immune system, a response is triggered that sends macrophages and B cells to destroy the antigens. The B cells also produce memory cells which initiate offensive attacks if the antigens are rediscovered in the blood during a futureinfection. Since the vaccine contains weakened or dead organisms, the personexperiences a mild reaction, but does not develop typhus.

In addition to his groundbreaking work on Rickettsial diseases, Zinsser alsomade important contributions to the knowledge of the nature of antigen-antibody reactions, the causes of rheumatic fever and the measurement of virus size. Zinsser's autobiography, As I Remember Him, was published in 1940. He died in New York City that same year.

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