Letters from Albert Sabin

19 January 2009

3165505130_cd96a19ca4_mThe oral poliovirus vaccine (OPV), which has been used to eradicate poliomyelitis in much of the world, was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin during the 1940s and 1950s. This live virus vaccine was produced by passing the three poliovirus serotypes in various cell cultures and searching for variants with reduced neurovirulence. In the days before molecular biology, it was a laborious, empirical procedure that lead to the vaccine that has prevented polio in hundreds of millions of children.

Early in my scientific career I had the opportunity to interact with Dr. Sabin. In 1981, as a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. David Baltimore’s laboratory at MIT, I had developed an infectious DNA copy of the poliovirus genome, an achievement which was noted by Dr. Sabin in a letter that he sent to Dr. Olen Kew of the Centers for Disease Control. At a 1983 meeting in Washington, DC on the control of poliomyelitis,  I gathered up my courage and approached Dr. Sabin between sessions. I told him I was interested in studying poliovirus neurovirulence in mice. He was very kind but expressed skepticism about the value of this approach.

In the ensuing years I sent Dr. Sabin copies of reprints of our work on this aspect of poliovirus pathogenesis. He always responded with insightful, and often highly critical comments. On several occasions I have shown these letters during seminars that I have presented on our work. They have never failed to elicit roars of laughter from the audience. Last week I shared these letters during my talk at the 19th Challenge in Virology in Saanen, Switzerland. One member of the audience suggested it would be valuable to put these letters on the internet, so that others could experience Dr. Sabin’s intensity . 

Below are copies of correspondence from Dr. Sabin. Included is the 1982 letter from Dr. Sabin to Olen Kew, and two letters, from 1986 and 1991 in response to copies of our publications that I had sent Dr. Sabin. I also include a copy of a 1956 paper of Dr. Sabin’s on which he wrote notes to me in an effort to make sure I understood specific aspects of poliovirus pathogenesis. These documents show the level of enthusiasm and dedication that Dr. Sabin had for research on poliovirus.

After his death in 1993, Dr. Sabin was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The inscription on his tomb reads “Developer of the vaccine that made possible the global eradication of poliomyelitis”.

Letter from Dr. Sabin to Dr. Kew, 1982 (548 kB pdf)
Letter from Dr. Sabin to me, 1986 (112 kB pdf)
Letter from Dr. Sabin to me, 1991 (1.8 MB pdf)
Sabin Science paper of 1956, with handwritten notes to me by Dr. Sabin (1.5 MB pdf)

  • ET

    WOW! “you did not learn anything from them” and “you are not the only molecular biologist with whom I have problems”

    I'm not too sure I could bounce back from that kind of criticism that quick, especially from someone so well thought of. What a story to tell for you though…

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    Amazing, isn’t it? I didn’t let it bother me, because I knew my
    experiments were fine; plus, he obviously had similar problems with
    other scientists. He even sent me a letter he had written to Bernard
    Roizman; it was a bit gentler but still highly critical. In
    retrospect, they are amusing. You should hear the audiences laughing
    when I show them.

  • http://www.virology.ca Chris

    Bet you're glad he wasn't REVIEWING your papers or grants!

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    Great point…but somewhere, sometime, there is always someone like
    him, I fear…

  • Stephen Curry

    Would be very interested to read these letters but the links aren't working (404 error) – any idea if this is just a temporary glitch (clearly others managed to access them)?

  • Stephen Curry

    Yes – can see the post OK and hovering over the link shows there should be a pdf on the other end (according to the status bar at the bottom of my browser) but clicking gets me to a 404 error…

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    Hmm…someone else in the UK (at Cambridge) also reported the same
    problem…so you can view the post itself, but the links don’t work? I
    will look into it today; it seem to work from the US and Canada.

  • profvrr

    Try it now Stephen, I modified the link structure. Make sure to
    refresh the page.

  • Stephen Curry

    That's it – many thanks!

  • Stephen Curry

    I really enjoyed the letters – they give a great flavour of the great man. I've taken the liberty of blogging about this post on Nature Network:

    http://network.nature.com/people/scurry/blog/20

    Hope it will bring in a few more readers.

    Can't quite fathom how you have the time for such a regular blog and the podcast – I'm impressed!

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    Nice post, Stephen. I enjoyed it; you have a good writing style. You
    are welcome to re-post any time.

    I've decided to post regularly for a while and see the outcome.
    Between the blog and the podcast, it does take time, but I try to keep
    much of the prep work for the evenings. Certainly I should be writing
    grants, but I am learning a great deal in much broader areas than I
    would if I were writing my grants.

  • Stephen Curry

    I really enjoyed the letters – they give a great flavour of the great man. I've taken the liberty of blogging about this post on Nature Network:

    http://network.nature.com/people/scurry/blog/20

    Hope it will bring in a few more readers.

    Can't quite fathom how you have the time for such a regular blog and the podcast – I'm impressed!

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    Looks like you’ve done your research very well.

  • http://twitter.com/GertrudRey Gertrud Rey

    WOW.  Just Wow.  You “wrote sweet words that were good medicine for an old man’s ego”, only to get a verbal beating in return.  OUCH!  Some people (especially people in science) really don’t have social skills!  :)

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    I learned from my mentors how I should not behave. 

  • CP

    Have arrived many years after post, however was grateful to find and read these letters, In particular love the exquisite detail and order of his structure, and the distinct colorful persona through his hand writing. Clearly he inspires from the other side and may be sets a path few are willing. patient enough, or merely mediocre and incapable of following in his discovery methods in the quest for truth.

    Was a great read and will save. Thank you for sharing this material.
    Charles Pixley