Back in another life, I worked for the University of Rochester Medical Center. However, that was not how I met David H. Smith, the discoverer and developer of the now-common vaccine against Hemophilus influenzae b. That relationship began when my gynecologist suggested that I might want to help Dr. Smith out with his latest research project.
The following quotes are from the URMC article linked above, which recently came to my attention and inspired this post.
After training in pediatrics at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Boston, Dr. Smith served as a captain in the US Army in Japan. While a medical officer, he became the first to link chronic granulomatous disease to a deficiency in white cells. Back at Harvard, he continued his postdoctoral research in molecular genetics and bacteriology and served as chief of lnfectious Diseases at Children's Hospital from 1965 to 1976.
Harvard's legendary professor, Charles Janeway, an early researcher on the human immune system, became Smith's role model and mentor. At a time when much research focused on antibiotics, Janeway challenged his young doctors to expand their vision. At the bedside of a child enduring the agony of meningitis, Janeway said, One of you should try to find a vaccine to prevent this terrible disease. David Smith took up that challenge, and a I5-year quest was begun.
While at Harvard, he continued studying the biology and epidemiology of bacterial drug resistance factors and in 1968 began the search for a vaccine to protect against Hemophilus influenzae b., the cause of bacterial meningitis. Working in close partnership with Dr. Smith was his research colleague Porter W. Anderson, Ph.D.
In 1976, Dr. Smith was called back to the University of Rochester to chair the Department of Pediatrics. ... Dr. Smith and his research team worked flat out on the search for a Hib vaccine. By the early 1980s, the first Hib vaccine had been tested, licensed, and was being produced in a small laboratory within the medical school.
When I entered the scene, in early 1979, Smith and Anderson had a vaccine that worked for older children, but nothing to protect infants and very young children, a critical, dangerous gap. The research project that I joined was working to address the problem by vaccinating women who were hoping to become pregnant, and following their immune responses, through testing for antibodies in the mothers' blood during pregnancy, the babies' blood after birth, and also in breast milk.
It worked! I had a proper immune response, as did our child, who gained further protection through my milk.
I don't know what steps led from that study to the eventual development and acceptance of the H flu b vaccine in use today (it's now called Hib), but even though it was not yet publicly available, they—at my request—very kindly provided it to our second child, born in 1982.
Stung by the resistance of any major pharmaceutical company to buy rights to the vaccine, Dr. Smith decided to create his own pharmaceutical firm. In 1983, he resigned his chairmanship and founded Praxis Biologics. ... By 1989, Praxis had the largest number of new vaccines in clinical trials and one of the finest manufacturing facilities in North America. The initial Hib vaccine (1990) was the first vaccine to be licensed in the U.S. in a decade. The second, a conjugate vaccine, was the first to be licensed for universal use with infants since the rubella vaccine for measles and mumps.
("The rubella vaccine for measles and mumps"? Okay, we all know what they mean, but the article could have benefitted from a proofreader.)
The following is from Dr. Smith's obituary in the New York Times:
In the early 1980's, about 20,000 cases of Hib invasive disease in preschool children were reported to the Federal Centers for Disease Control. In about 12,000 of those cases, the children had meningitis, an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord membranes that can be fatal or cause permanent brain damage. In 1997, a few years after the vaccine became available for infants, 258 cases were reported.
It was a privilege to be part of that work.