Max Theiler was a South African-American virologist who developed a vaccine against yellow fever for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1951. He was the first African-born Nobel laureate. Born in Pretoria as the son of a veterinary bacteriologist, he was exposed to the field of medicine from a young age. He graduated from the University of Cape Town Medical School and went to London for his post-graduate work. He eventually earned a diploma in tropical medicine and hygiene from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine following which he moved to the United States to do research at the Harvard University School of Tropical Medicine. After working on issues related to amoebic dysentery and rat bite fever, he focused upon the study of yellow fever and began working on developing a vaccine against the disease. Following years of rigorous research he successfully developed a safe, standardized vaccine for the disease. The success of the vaccine earned him international acclaim and ultimately the Nobel Prize. He was also engaged in research on dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis. He authored several scientific papers and contributed to two books, ‘Viral and Rickettsial Infections of Man’ and ‘Yellow Fever.
Childhood & Early Life
Max Theiler was born on 30 January 1899, in Pretoria, South African Republic (present-day South Africa), to Arnold Theiler and Emma. His father was a prominent veterinary bacteriologist. Both his parents had emigrated from Switzerland.
He attended Pretoria Boys High School. Exposed to the medical field at a young age, he enrolled at the University of Cape Town Medical School in 1916, graduating in 1918.
After the conclusion of the World War I in 1919, he left South Africa for London, England to study at St Thomas's Hospital Medical School, King's College London. He furthered his training at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and completed his diploma in tropical medicine and hygiene in 1922. The same year he became a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians and a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons.
However, he was not given the M.D. degree because the University of London refused to recognize his two years of training at the University of Cape Town.
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Max Theiler was not interested in becoming a general practitioner. So upon finishing his medical training in 1922 he obtained a position as an assistant in the Department of Tropical Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
His initial research focused on amoebic dysentery and rat-bite fever and he eventually developed an interest in yellow fever. Working along with his colleagues, he proved that the cause of yellow fever was not a bacterium but a filterable virus.
In 1930, he joined the staff of the International Health Division of the Rockefeller Foundation; he worked with the foundation for over three decades. There he continued his work on yellow fever and demonstrated that the disease could be readily transmitted to mice.
His discovery that the disease could be transmitted to mice facilitated the vaccine research. After years of rigorous research, Theiler and his team developed the first attenuated, or weakened, strain of the virus which led to the development of a vaccine against yellow fever in 1937. Over the next few years the Rockefeller Foundation produced more than 28 million doses of the vaccine which were given away to people in tropical countries and the United States.
Continuing his work in viruses, he discovered a filterable agent that was a known cause for paralysis in mice in 1937. The virus was not transmittable to Rhesus monkeys from the mice, and only some of the infected mice developed symptoms. The virus later came to be known as Theiler's Murine Encephalomyelitis Virus (TMEV).
In 1951, he became the Director of Laboratories of the Rockefeller Foundation's Division of Medicine and Public Health, New York. In addition to his work on yellow fever, he also performed important research on the causes and immunology of disorders like Weil's disease, dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis.
He authored numerous papers which were published in ‘The American Journal of Tropical Medicine’ and ‘Annals of Tropical Medicine and Parasitology’. He also contributed to two books, ‘Viral and Rickettsial Infections of Man’ (1948) and ‘Yellow Fever’ (1951).
He retired from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1964 following which he became professor of epidemiology and microbiology at Yale University, where he remained until 1967.
Max Theiler is best remembered for developing a vaccine against yellow fever. The vaccine, which is made from weakened yellow fever virus, is listed on the World Health Organization's List of Essential Medicines and is counted amongst the most important medications needed in a basic health system.
Awards & Achievements
In 1939, he was awarded the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene's Chalmers Medal.
He was presented with the American Public Health Association's Lasker Award in 1949.
Max Theiler received the 1951 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for his discoveries concerning yellow fever and how to combat it".
Personal Life & Legacy
Max Theiler married Lillian Graham in 1928 and they had one daughter.
He died on August 11, 1972, at the age of 73.