Measles vaccine developer Samuel Katz dies at 95

MEasles was once a common childhood disease that claimed millions of lives worldwide every year. Samuel Katz, a key developer of the attenuated measles vaccine that helped reduce the death toll, died Oct. 31 at his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, at the age of 95.

Katz was born on May 29, 1927 in New Hampshire. According to a Duke University obituary, he completed a year at Dartmouth College before enlisting in the United States Navy in 1945. As World War II neared its end, he was sent to work in a San Diego hospital. His interest in medicine was sparked and when he returned to Dartmouth he completed his bachelor’s degree in 1950 and then a two-year pre-clinical programme. He attended Harvard University Medical School, graduating in 1952. Katz then stayed in Boston for training and fellowships at hospitals across the city.

According to a 2009 Dartmouth alumni profile, in 1955 Katz was in his third year of residency when a scourge of polio swept the Boston area. A vaccine against the disease was recently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but has not yet been widely distributed. Katz and other doctors worked around the clock to see the line of sick children and worried parents outside, using flashlights after the sun went down. This experience prompted him to pursue a career in pediatric infectious diseases.

See Jean Macnamara’s Multiple Causes, 1931

The year before, Boston-based virologist John Enders received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for isolating the poliovirus. The Washington Post reports that when the polio outbreak subsided, Katz contacted him to work in Enders’ lab at Boston Children’s Hospital to work on developing a measles vaccine.

Katz and others infected a number of chicks with the measles virus to successfully attenuate it. Because the virus does not replicate well in chickens, it became weaker each time it infected a new host, until the virus elicited a symptomless immune response or an active viral infection. Human trials began in the late 1950s, and the vaccine was successful in raising antibodies in the blood of patients with no evidence of infection from the virus itself. In 1960, Enders, Katz and their colleagues published their results, which attracted enormous interest.

See “Gale and Potatoes, 1921”

That same year, Katz began testing the new vaccine in Nigeria, where the death rate from measles was much higher than in the United States. The vaccine was given to hundreds of children, and the success of the study contributed to the vaccine’s approval. According to the World Health Organization, the vaccine was described as 100 percent effective, and the FDA approved the vaccine in 1963. In 1968, the vaccine Katz was working on was replaced with an even weaker form of the virus that had milder side effects.

That same year he became director of pediatrics at Duke University School of Medicine, a position he held for 22 years. There Katz developed vaccinations against polio, rubella, influenza and many other viral diseases. In 1990, he resigned from this administrative role to focus on pediatric AIDS with his second wife, immunologist Catherine Wilfert.

In addition to his official duties at Duke, Katz spent much of his time advocating for pediatric immunization worldwide and in the United States. According to a newsletter from the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society, Katz joined the organization shortly after its inception in 1977. The following year, at the inaugural meeting, he co-directed a program to promote the measles vaccine. From 1982 to 1993 he was a consultant on immunizations for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to that postKatz testified before Congress in 1999 on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Infectious Disease Society of America, reminding lawmakers what the world was like before childhood vaccinations were commonplace, when the Committee on Government Reform made regulations on mandatory versus personal vaccinations election debated.

“Fortunately, most young parents can’t face the horrors of polio with iron lungs and crutches like I can; measles with encephalitis; Meningitis caused by Haemophilus influenza B. . . the deafness, blindness and brain injury. . . caused by congenital rubella; tetanus in newborns with overwhelming mortality; and a host of other infectious diseases that we fortunately don’t see,” he said.

Katz was preceded in death by a son, Samuel, in 1980 and by his wife, Catherine Wilfert, in 2020. He leaves behind six children, two stepchildren and 17 grandchildren.