Early Einstein Faculty, Pioneer of Hib Vaccine, Dies at Age 86
John Robbins, M.D., a former associate professor of pediatrics at Einstein who later built a career at (and retired from) the National Institutes of Health, died on November 27 at age 86.
While at Einstein in the late 1960s, Dr. Robbins began studying Hemophilus influenzae type b (Hib); he would later co-develop the Hib vaccine, which spared millions of young children from early death, deafness, and neurological impairment. According to the World Health Organization, prior to introduction of a vaccine, Hib was responsible for more than 8 million cases of serious disease in children, often resulting in intellectual disability, and nearly 400,000 deaths.
Thanks to his development of the vaccine, completed with NIH colleague Rachel Schneerson, Ph.D., medical students today never see a case of Hib.
“The Hib vaccine was one of the most significant scientific and public health victories of the 20th century,” noted Liise-anne Pirofski, M.D. professor of medicine and or microbiology & immunology at Einstein as well as chief of infectious diseases at Montefiore, who was among colleagues at the College of Medicine who were privileged to collaborate with Dr. Robbins while he was at the NIH. “The work John did on the vaccine began and flourished at Einstein. As a collaborator, he was truly one of a kind.”
An astute physician-scientist, after leaving Einstein, Dr. Robbins enjoyed a long and illustrious career at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), where he was its first clinical director and later served as chief of the Laboratory of Developmental and Molecular Immunity. He retired from the NIH in 2012.
Drs. Robbins and Schneerson, teamed with Porter Anderson and David Hamilton Smith at Harvard University to, introduce the first Hib vaccine in the 1970s. The polysaccharide vaccine was found to be ineffective among children younger than 18 months old ? the population most vulnerable to Hib. Drs. Robbins and Schneerson then developed a conjugate vaccine, which paired a polysaccharide from the Hib bacterium's outer coating with a protein the immune system easily recognized, strengthening its immune-inducing capacity. This was a ground-breaking advance that made the development of the current pneumococcal and meningococcal conjugate vaccines possible.
The Hib vaccine was the first conjugate vaccine for use in humans, and was introduced in 1989 to immediate success. Hib cases plummeted; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2015, there were 0.08 cases of Hib disease per 100,000 children younger than 5 years old in the United States. Dr. Robbins ultimately received the Lasker Award for the work he did while at Einstein.
Editor's Note: If you would like to leave a remembrance of Dr. Robbins, please visit our In Memoriam page.
Posted on: Tuesday, December 24, 2019