In 2020, scientists are rushing to produce a safe vaccine to stop the world-wide pandemic of COVID-19. Compare that to the 1940s and 1950s, when scientists had far less knowledge, technology and experience to produce a safe vaccine for the polio epidemics that caused extensive death and paralysis every summer from 1916 onward. In 1949, polio killed more than 3000 North Americans, and I remember the huge lines going around the block at Boston Children’s Hospital, with parents and their sick children trying to get in to see the doctors, even though doctors had no medications to treat polio. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had served as U.S. president (1932-1944) in a wheelchair because he was completely paralyzed from the waist down from polio contracted at age 39.
Many of you think that Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin stopped the polio epidemics with their killed polio Salk vaccine or the live and weakened Sabin polio vaccines. However, you don’t see polio anymore primarily because of Joseph Melnick, who supervised the field trials of the vaccines and made sure that most of the entire U.S. population was vaccinated against polio. He was one of the most famous virologists in the world and was absolutely brilliant. He wrote many more than 1000 scientific papers and was the editor of many scientific journals, yet he died at age 87 of dementia.
Most Cited Polio Researcher Ever
Melnick’s work is the main reason we don’t have polio epidemics any more, and he was honored for his efforts against polio at the opening of the Polio Hall of Fame on January 2, 1958. 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. 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 sewage,
• 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
Melnick 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 at Baylor. I had majored in math in college. I was the son of poor immigrant parents, I had never worked in a hospital and the only doctor I had ever met was my local family practitioner. I had no relatives who went to college, let alone 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’ Administration Hospital.
Joe Melnick was my advisor at Baylor. I told him that I was not enjoying medical school and was considering leaving because I found it difficult to work so many hours in addition to classes and studying. He asked how much it would take to keep me in school. When I told him, he responded, “Stay in school. You don’t have to work on those jobs anymore.” He paid me to set up and supervise the field trials for a new influenza vaccine and so I was able to stay in medical school.
Brilliant People with Dementia
On the same page as Melnick’s 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 or chemicals from the 1930s onward. Their work bought them world-wide recognition but ultimately killed them.
• The current COVID-19 pandemic will not stop and we will not be able to stop distancing ourselves until we have a safe and effective vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the causative virus.
• Anti-vaccine activists are harming themselves and everyone else by ignoring history and encouraging people to skip being vaccinated.
• Being brilliant does not protect you from developing dementia with aging. Some causes of dementia are preventable and treatable. All risk factors for heart attacks are also risk factors for dementia.
• People who start to lose their memory should have a complete evaluation for the causes. The medical evaluation should include an MRI of the brain, CBC, SMA-12, APOE genotype, Folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, hydroxyvitamin D, HbA1c, homocysteine, lipid panel, syphilis screen, CRP, Sed rate, T3,T4, TSH, immune electrophoresis, and more. See Some Cases of Dementia Have Effective Treatments
Joseph L. Melnick
October 9, 1914 – January 7, 2001