by Robert Collins, the Shapiro Chair in Pathology
image courtesy of Sam Paplanus
While the production and distribution of the H1N1 vaccine is very much in the news, it is less known that the basic method for producing this vaccine was developed at Vanderbilt in 1931.
The scientist responsible was Ernest William Goodpasture. A native Tennessean, he received his undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt in 1907 and his M.D. from Johns Hopkins in 1912. After training in pathology at Hopkins and Harvard, his first major contribution in the field of virology was the result of an autopsy study of patients who died in the great influenza pandemic of 1918-21. At that time, influenza was thought to be a bacterial infection. However, in a meticulous study of more than 50 cases, Goodpasture found two in which there were no bacteria, and he predicted in 1919 that influenza was a viral rather than bacterial disease. It was another 14 years before the virus was actually isolated.
This remarkable achievement was not the reason Goodpasture became one of the world’s leading virologists. Rather, he attributed his interest in viral diseases to collaboration in 1922-23 with Dr. Oscar Teague, also a Vanderbilt alumnus, at Pittsburgh’s Singer Research Institute, where the two studied the mechanism by which herpes viruses reach the central nervous system after a superficial infection.
Goodpasture and Teague completed six papers before the latter’s untimely death in a car accident in September 1923. Their work attracted the interest of Dean G. Canby Robinson, who invited Goodpasture to become chair of pathology in Vanderbilt’s newly reorganized School of Medicine in 1924.
It was here in 1931 that Goodpasture and colleagues made the landmark discovery that viruses could be isolated and grown in pure culture in fertilized chicken eggs. This discovery enabled the development of vaccines that prevented yellow fever and typhus in American troops during WWII, and is the method of choice for making vaccines against influenza today.