John Enders, Vaccine Pioneer

John Enders, M.D., was awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for developing virus-culturing techniques that opened the door to vaccines for polio, measles, mumps and many other life-threatening viral diseases. Many of his techniques are still used by viral laboratories today. He tutored several other Nobel Prize winners, and virologists from all over the world would come to work in his laboratory and copy his techniques. This brilliant, world-famous Harvard professor was incredibly humble. He would sit quietly at the back of the large auditorium at Boston Children’s Hospital and give his opinions in just a few words at the end of the weekly Clinical Pathology Conferences.

A Late Bloomer Enders didn’t even work in a lab until he was thirty. He did most of his major investigative work after age 50, when he started his world-famous laboratory at Children's Hospital after the end of World War II.

He was born on February 10, 1897, in West Hartford, Connecticut, to impressive wealth. His grandfather, Thomas Enders, was the first full-time employee of Aetna Insurance and became its president in 1872. His father was chairman of the Hartford National Bank and Trust Company and at his death, left him more than 20 million dollars.

During World War I, Enders dropped out of Yale to join the military and was given the death-defying job of flight instructor for biplanes with two canvas wings. In 1920 he returned to Yale and got his degree. He went into buying and selling real estate, which he found terribly boring, so he went to Harvard to get a master’s degree in English and planned to spend the rest of his life teaching. This also bored him, so he changed fields again to pursue a PhD in philology (the study of language in literature). He wrote to a friend, "I mouth the strange syllables of ten forgotten languages, letting my spirits fall and my youth pass."

Fortunately for the rest of the world, friends who were medical students introduced him to Hans Zinsser, a published poet and intellectual who wrote regularly for the Atlantic Monthly and was a concert-quality violinist. He was also professor of bacteriology and immunology at Harvard and the first person to isolate the typhus bacterium. Enders changed his major to bacteriology and immunology and worked with Zinsser to develop an anti-typhus vaccine. He received his PhD at age 33 in 1930. Enders described Zinsser as, "A man of superlative energy. Literature, politics, history, and science – all he discussed with spontaneity and without self-consciousness . . . Under such influences, the laboratory became much more than a place just to work and teach; it became a way of life."

Zinsser died of acute leukemia in 1940, but Enders carried on his work at Harvard and in 1947, he became head of the Research Division of Infectious Diseases of Children's Hospital, Boston. There he developed new methods to culture viruses in test tubes and to find viruses just by looking for the cell damage they caused. His technique for culturing the polio virus was specifically responsible for the vaccines developed by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin that eradicated the polio epidemic from the United States. He tutored my medical school mentor, Joe Melnick, who did the clinical trials of the ground-breaking polio vaccines. Enders also created the measles vaccine that has saved more than 100 million lives. During my training, I spent many hours looking at virus cultures using his techniques. Many tissue culture procedures developed by Enders are still used today.

Death from Heart Failure On September 8, 1985, while reading T.S. Elliot out loud to his wife and daughter, he slumped over and died of heart failure. He was 88 years old. His obituaries do not tell his medical history and I do not know if he had any underlying medical conditions. Today, most people think incorrectly that old age inevitably weakens the heart and that an 88-year-old person who dies of heart failure has died of “natural causes”. The truth is that the vast majority of deaths from heart disease are caused by a person’s lifestyle, not by aging, and lifestyle is a much stronger cause of heart disease than family history.

The heart is like any other muscle. It weakens with aging because it loses muscle fibers. However, if you exercise every day, you can enlarge the remaining muscle fibers and keep them strong. The same applies to heart muscle. The heart can be damaged by many factors and avoiding these factors can help protect you from heart disease.

Risk Factors for Heart Attacks Anything that weakens your heart increases risk for heart attacks and heart failure. * high blood pressure * heart valve problems * a previous heart attack * rapid resting heart rate (greaterthan 70 beats per minute) * nutritional deficiencies of essential vitamins or minerals, such as thiamin (vitamin B-1) * certain viral infections * iron buildup in your heart muscle (hemochromatosis) * genetic conditions * chemotherapy drugs to treat cancer * radiation to treat cancer, or any radiation at all * diabetes. * thyroid disorders. * overweight

Lifestyle Habits that can Cause Heart Damage * drinking alcohol * smoking * use of drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines or anabolic steroids * excess weight * severe rapid weight loss * malnutrition * stress * eating too much red meat, fried foods, and sugar-added foods and drinks. * not eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. * not exercising

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in North America today. Each year in the United States, more than 720,000 people have heart attacks at a cost of 108.9 billion dollars, and more than 600,000 die of heart disease. That’s one of every four deaths.

John Franklin Enders, MD February 10, 1897 - September 8, 1985

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