Samuel L. Katz: Measles Vaccines Saved Thousands of Lives

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Samuel Katz died of “old age” at age 95 on October 31, 2022. He was a pediatrician and virologist who saved thousands of lives by developing the measles vaccine more than 50 years ago, and went on to become chairman of pediatrics at Duke University School of Medicine. While he was a resident in training at the Boston Children’s Hospital, he was one of the doctors who treated polio patients in the epidemic of the summer of 1955. I was a junior at Harvard College at that time and saw patients and their parents lined up for more than three city blocks around the hospital on Longwood Avenue and Blackfan Street, trying to see doctors who had no means whatever to prevent or cure polio. Forty new polio cases were admitted to the hospital each day, and doctors went out each night onto the street with flashlights to evaluate the waiting patients.

In 1956, when the polio epidemic subsided, Katz went from being a pediatric resident to working in Dr. John Enders’ laboratory at the Boston Children’s Hospital. Enders had won the 1954 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering how to grow the polio virus in cultures, and the first polio vaccines were based on his brilliant discovery.

Vaccination Programs Saved My Medical Career
In 1957, I had been totally unprepared for my first year of medical school. 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 third night as a laboratory technician at the Veterans’ Administration Hospital. My medical school advisor was Dr. Joe Melnick, the man who was in charge of the mass human testing of the Salk and Sabin polio vaccines. I told him that I was not doing well in 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.

In the mid 1950s, 3-4 million people were infected by measles every year, almost all children in North America were infected with measles by age 15 and there were 500 deaths per year. Dr. Katz worked full time trying to grow the measles virus and successfully grew a weakened virus that, when injected into rhesus monkeys, stimulated a protective immune response but did not cause disease. The measles vaccine was licensed in 1963, and in 1971 it was combined with mumps and rubella to form the triple vaccine that stopped three very serious diseases. At that time, I was a pediatric resident at the Massachusetts General Hospital and often went to grand rounds to see Dr Enders, the humble, brilliant and famous Nobel Prize winner, and Dr. Katz would be there also.

Dr. Katz was a research associate in Dr. Enders’ lab for more than 10 years and also served as a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital and Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and as an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Katz left Harvard in 1968 to become chairman of Duke University School of Medicine Pediatrics Department for 22 years.  In 1990, he resigned as chairman of the Department of Pediatrics to work with his second wife, Dr. Catherine Wilfert. She was a researcher in HIV/AIDS who showed that the drug AZT reduces the transmission from mother to child by more than 60 percent. Dr. Katz continued as an emeritus professor, teaching at Duke until he retired in 2017 at age 90.

Dr. Katz’s Legacy
Dr. Katz was famous for being a strong advocate for vaccinations. He lived and worked in resource-poor communities in the United States and countries around the world. He chaired the Committee on Infectious Diseases of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Vaccine Priorities Study of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), and several World Health Organization (WHO) vaccine and HIV panels.
He served on:
• National Institutes of Health (NIH) Committee for AIDS Vaccines
• India-U.S. Vaccine Action Program and the National Network for Immunization Information
• Public Policy Council of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA),
• IDSA’s Vaccine Initiative

Dr. Katz helped to save lives with vaccines that helped to control measles, vaccinia smallpox, polio, rubella, influenza, pertussis (whooping cough), and Haemophilus influenza type b. Commenting on Dr. Katz’s death, Dr. Peter Hotez (dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine and a noted expert on vaccines), said, “I’m sure Dr. Katz would have conniptions over the anti-vaccine activism causing people to refuse the COVID vaccine.” There is almost no debate in the scientific community on whether vaccines save lives and prevent disease.

Samuel L. Katz
May 29, 1927 – October 31, 2022