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Joseph Louis Melnick, Virologist

Joseph Melnick (October 9, 1914 – January 7, 2001) was one of the most famous virologists in the world. He wrote more than 1000 scientific papers and was the editor of many scientific journals. He died of dementia.

Brilliant People with Dementia
On the same page as his obituary in the New York Times on January 21, 2001 was that of another world-famous and brilliant virus researcher, Dorothy Millicent Horstmann. She worked for many years as a researcher at Yale with Dr Melnick. They wrote many papers together and were two of the giants in the then-young field of medical virology.

It is difficult to believe that these incredibly productive people lost their minds in later life. Like two-time Nobelist, Marie Curie, who died of leukemia caused by her research on radiation, the dementia that affected both Joseph Melnick and Dorothy Millicent Horstmann was probably caused by working with one or more dangerous viruses from the 1930s onward. Their work bought them world-wide recognition but ultimately killed them.

Most Cited Polio Researcher Ever
Melnick’s work is the main reason we don’t have polio epidemics any more. He did more to eradicate polio than either Albert Sabin or Jonas Salk, who are more famous only because they had their vaccines named after them. Melnick saved Albert Sabin’s oral polio vaccine by showing that it was less harmful to the nervous system than comparable vaccines. He showed that polio vaccine could be stored for years using magnesium chloride as a preservative, and therefore did not have to be refrigerated. This was the most important step in eliminating polio world wide.

Melnick led the field trials that showed that the Sabin and Salk polio vaccines prevent polio disease. He was the first to show that the polio virus:
• was spread by hands soiled by fecal contamination,
• could be spread by flies,
• could survive for years in sewerage,
• belongs to a larger class of viruses called enteroviruses that live in the intestines,
• stays in the intestines and usually does not get into the central nervous system to cause paralysis.

The Complete Virologist
He developed many laboratory techniques for isolating, culturing and naming viruses that he discovered. He also made breakthroughs on many other viruses including those that cause hepatitis and influenza.

Dr. Melnick and Dr Michael Debakey published the first paper linking heart attacks with inflammation and infection in 1964. They were more than 40 years ahead of the rest of the world. He published many papers showing that cervical cancer is caused by a virus.

He Saved Me
In 1957, I was totally unprepared for my first year of medical school. I had majored in math in college. I was the son of poor immigrant parents who did not socialize with medical people. I had never worked in a hospital. I had no relatives who were physicians. I was working 100 hours a week selling ice cream each summer. During the school year, I received free room and board by staying up all night every second night as a laboratory technician at the Veterans’ Hospital.

Joe Melnick was my advisor in medical school. I told him that I was not enjoying medical school and was considering leaving. He asked what it would take to keep me in school. I told him that I found it difficult to work so many hours while I was going to school. He said: “Stay in school. You don’t have to work on those jobs any more.” He paid me to set up and supervise the field trials for a new influenza vaccine and I stayed in medical school.

September 15th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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