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Albert Bruce Sabin

Born 1906
Died 1993

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Polish-American physician and microbiologist, born August 26, 1906, Bialystok, Poland, Russian Empire; died March 3, 1993, Washington, D.C.

Biography of Albert Bruce Sabin

Albert Bruce Sabin is best known for developing the oral polio vaccine and for his research in the fields of human viral diseases, toxoplasmosis, and cancer.

A Polish Jew in New York
Sabin was born to a family of poor Jews in the Polish city of Bialystok, which was then in Russia. In 1921 the family migrated to the United States, partly to escape the persecution of the Jews. He became an American citizen nine years later.

When he came to the US, Sabin spoke no English, but took a six-week cram course from two cousins and learned enough to attend high school. He graduated from Pattison High School, New Jersey, and went to New York to study dentistry, because an uncle, a dentist, offered to finance his college education if he entered that profession. However, the course did not excite him and he switched to medical school. His interest in medicine and microbiology is said to have been influenced by his reading of Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters. He attended the New York University’s undergraduate college and School of Medicine and while there, did research on pneumococcus bacterial infections. He graduated B.S. in 1928 and received his M. D. in 1931

Encouraged by William Hallock Park (1863-1939), professor of bacteriology, and influenced by an epidemic of poliomyelitis in the summer of 1931, Sabin took up research into the causes of polio and other infections diseases of the human nervous system. That same year he made his first contribution to this area by showing that a skin test then used to determine whether a person was liable to get polio or not was not valid.

However, before embarking on full-time research, the trained in pathology, surgery and internal medicine at Bellevue Hospital, through 1933. During his internship at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, Sabin successfully isolated the B virus from a colleague who had died after a bite from a monkey. Sabin was soon able to prove the B virus's relation to the herpes simplex virus, the cause of herpes in humans.

Sabin then spent a year at the Lister institute of Preventive Medicine in London. In 1935, he returned to New York and joined the staff of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, where he was the first researcher to demonstrate that polio virus could grow in human nervous tissue outside the human body

Professor in Cincinnati
In 1939, he moved to the University of Cincinnati and its Children's Hospital Research Foundation as an associate professor of paediatrics to conduct research on viruses.

At the outbreak of World War II Sabin joined the US Army. During the years 1943 to 1946 he served as a lieutenant colonel with the Board of Investigation of Epidemic Diseases of Office of the Surgeon General, with special missions in the Middle East, Africa, Sicily, Okinawa and the Philippines. He isolated the virus that causes sandfly fever, a fatal epidemic disease affecting troops in Africa, and helped develop a vaccine against dengue fever, a debilitating, but usually nonfatal disease striking troops in the South Pacific. He also studied the parasites that cause toxoplasmosis, as well as the viruses that cause encephalitis.

In 1946 he returned to the University of Cincinnati, now professor of research paediatrics, to continue work on polio. While at the college he disproved the prevailing theory that the polio virus enters the body through the nose and respiratory system, and subsequently demonstrated that the virus first invaded the digestive tract and then the nervous system. He was also among the scientists who identified the three types of polio virus.

The vaccine
Sabin developed a live-virus vaccine that was first tested in 1954. By that time, however, the killed-virus vaccine developed by Jonas Edward Salk (1914-1995), had already been developed and tested and was commercially available in 1955. The Salk vaccine, which is injected, proved effective in sharply reducing the number of poliomyelitis cases in the US. Sabin, however, persisted in his efforts to develop a vaccine based on a living virus. He postulated that live, attenuated virus, administered orally, would provide immunity over a longer period of time than killed, injected virus.

By 1957 he had isolated strains of each of the three types of polio virus. These strains were not strong enough to produce the disease itself but were capable of stimulating the production of antibodies. He then proceeded to conduct preliminary experiments in the oral administration of these attenuated strains. The vaccine was developed by him and his colleagues at the University of Cincinnati.

Co-operative studies were then conducted with scientists from Mexico, The Netherlands, and the Soviet Union, and finally, in extensive field trials on children, the effectiveness of the new vaccine was conclusively demonstrated. In 1958 and 1959 the vaccine was tested in millions of people in the Soviet Union between and proved successful.

The Sabin oral polio vaccine, commonly administered on a lump of sugar, was approved for use in the United States in 1960 and became the main defence against polio throughout the world. People vaccinated with Sabin's vaccine only infected others with a much weakened version of the disease and this conferred immunity to the unvaccinated population too. It was licensed in 1961 and became the vaccine of choice in most parts of the world.

The Sabin vaccine suffered a temporary setback when public health officials reported that a few children (about 1 in one million inoculated) developed polio because of the vaccine. Dr. Sabin, however, never admitted that his vaccine was responsible.

Later years
In 1970, Sabin became president of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, but stepped down in November 1972 because of a heart condition for which he later had open heart surgery.
From 1974 to 1982 he was a distinguished research professor of biomedicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. From 1984 to 1986 he worked part-time as a senior expert consultant at Fogarty International Center for Advanced Studies in Health Sciences of National Institutes of Health.

Sabin was married to Sylvia Tregillus in 1935; she died in 1966. He married Jane Warner, but the marriage ended in divorce. In 1972, he married Heloisa Dunshee de Abranches.

Sabin was a member of a large number of national and foreign medical and scientific societies, and received 46 honorary degrees and numerous prestigious awards from around the world. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1951. On May 12, 1986, Sabin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004).

Sabin refused to patent his vaccine, insisting that the vaccine and its delivery be free of charge.
In Europe and the USA in the early 1960s, over 200,000,000 were vaccinated and it has been estimated that 500,000 deaths and 5,000,000 cases of paralytic polio were prevented.

Albert Bruce died of congestive heart failure at Georgetown Medical Center, aged 86. He is buried in Section 3 of the Section 3 in Arlington National Cemetery.

    "A great loss. His contribution toward the control of polio will endure long into the future."
    Jonas Salk on the death of his colleague and rival.

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