Remembering Dr. Albert B. Sabin
Dr. Albert Bruce Sabin, best known as the developer of the oral live virus polio vaccine, died 25 years ago. Over the course of a career that spanned nearly six decades, his discoveries and approaches to research shaped the modern world. Not only did Sabin spend decades doggedly conducting research to develop an oral polio vaccine, he brought the same tenacity to ensuring that the vaccine would benefit children around the world, advocating for mass immunization campaigns to interrupt polio transmission. At the height of the Cold War in 1959, he collaborated with scientists in the Soviet Union to test the vaccine on more than 10 million people. A year later, Czechoslovakia became the first country to eliminate polio and in the United States, more than 200,000 children in Cincinnati received the oral vaccine.
Sabin eventually donated his vaccine strains to the World Health Organization to ensure the oral polio vaccine would remain accessible and affordable. More than 50 years later, polio is near eradication.
“All nations must come to realize that in the years ahead the world cannot long continue one third well-fed and two-thirds hungry... The time has come for the economically more advanced nations to realize that they have a common enemy in the poverty, hunger, and despair of almost two-thirds of the world’s population.” -- Dr. Albert Sabin, in a speech delivered in Louisville, Kentucky April 6, 1963
Born in 1906 to Jewish parents in Bialystok, Poland, then a part of Imperial Russia, Sabin’s family fled persecution, immigrating to the United States when he was 15 years old to join their extended family. After abandoning plans to be a dentist, Sabin attended medical school on a scholarship and worked in Harlem Hospital’s pneumonia laboratory. There, in his first year of medical school, he developed a breakthrough method to more rapidly determine the type of pneumococci.
In July 1931, a severe polio epidemic broke out in New York City. Sabin, who had just graduated from medical school, began his career as a virologist. After a coworker was bitten by a research monkey and died, Sabin identified the unknown virus as a type of herpes and named it the ‘B virus’ after his late colleague, Dr. William Brebner. In addition to polio, he studied toxoplasmosis and rheumatic fever, working at Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine in London and the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, where he helped demonstrate that the poliovirus could be grown in human tissue in a lab.
In 1939 Sabin joined the Children’s Hospital Research Foundation at the University of Cincinnati, a partnership that would span decades and ultimately yield the oral polio vaccine, but his research was interrupted by Word War II. In 1941, Sabin joined the U.S. Army Epidemiological Board’s Virus Committee. Two years later, he enlisted in the Army Medical Corps, dividing his time between his Cincinnati laboratory, the laboratories of the Rockefeller Institute and overseas assignments in the Middle East, Africa, Sicily, Okinawa and the Philippines. During the war, Sabin focused on diseases affecting troops. He isolated and identified the virus that caused visceral leishmaniosis (sand fly fever), and developed vaccines for dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis. At the end of the war, he returned to Cincinnati and resumed his polio research.
Sabin worked to isolate a mutant form of the polio virus incapable of producing the disease that would be safe to introduce to the human body. Sabin sought to identify a live, safe variant polio virus that could be administered orally. This avirulent virus reproduced rapidly in the intestines, displacing lethal forms of the polio virus and providing protection from the disease. Sabin and his research associates first ingested the live avirulent viruses themselves before experimenting on others.
Polio was effectively eradicated in the United States in 1979 thanks to the use of Sabin’s attenuated polio vaccine and Dr. Jonas Salk’s inactivated polio vaccine. Sabin waged a lifelong campaign advocating for National Immunization Days, arguing that every country in the world could afford to eliminate polio with his inexpensive and easy-to-administer vaccine.
By his side was his third wife Heloisa, whom he met in Brazil in 1971 and married five months later. Their courtship was conducted through international post, with the two exchanging near daily letters. Heloisa Dunshee de Abranches was then 54, mother of two grown children and niece of a prominent Brazilian newspaper owner. Sabin was also a father, with two children with his late wife, Sylvia Tregillus, who died in 1966 after more than 30 years of marriage.
In 1983, Sabin began suffering symptoms of paralysis and fell ill. By August he was paralyzed from the waist down. As he lay near death in the hospital, a Chicago Tribune columnist wrote about Sabin’s plight and suggested that the public write to him. More than 100,000 letters arrived from all over the country. Heloisa sat by Sabin’s bedside and read the letters aloud to him. Sabin, who recovered, said, “You always have a feeling of doubting whether what you have done with your life is truly worthwhile… But from these letters, the evidence is very good that people consider my work worthwhile.”
After his recovery, Sabin and Heloisa mobilized support for polio eradication around the world, working closely with Rotary International, which to this day has helped immunize 2.5 billion children against polio in 122 countries. Sabin was an outspoken and often impatient advocate for immunization, nuclear disarmament and world peace. He continued to contribute to research, collaborating with scientists and health officials in Mexico and Brazil on an aerosol vaccine to combat measles. In 1992, he met Dr. H.R. Shepherd, a pioneer in aerosol technologies. Known as Shep, Shepherd suggested that Sabin’s accomplishments would be best recognized by the founding of an institution in his name.
Following Sabin’s death on March 3, 1993, the Sabin Vaccine Institute was founded by Heloisa Sabin, Dr. H.R. Shepherd, Dr. Robert Chanock and Dr. Philip Russell. The Sabin Vaccine Institute continues to honor this legacy through its mission to make vaccines more accessible, enable innovation and expand immunization across the globe.
The Sabin Vaccine Institute works with governments, researchers, immunization managers and others to strengthen immunization programs and foster innovation. We are proud to continue Dr. Sabin’s legacy and remain committed to finding solutions that last and extending the full benefits of life-improving vaccines to all people, regardless of who they are or where they live.
Despite the enormous health and economic potential of vaccines, the world is failing to ensure everyone benefits from the promise of immunization. Polio has yet to be eliminated, although there were only 22 reported cases in 2017.
Sabin dedicated himself to ensuring that research “not remain something beautiful on the shelves of libraries or like the works of art hanging in museums, but that it be used, as far as possible, to solve basic and human problems.”
This purpose still guides our work today.
This blog was based on information from the Hauck Center for the Albert B. Sabin archives at the University of Cincinnati and a National Academy of Sciences biographical memoir of Albert Sabin written by Marguerite Rose Jiménez, published in 2014.