Thomas H. Weller, Nobel Laureate and Professor Emeritus, dies

Thomas Weller signing his autobiography in 2004

For immediate release: Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Boston, MA — Thomas H. Weller, a Nobel Prize winner in 1954 and HSPH Professor Emeritus, passed away on Saturday, August 23, 2008. He was 93.

Dr. Weller received the Nobel Prize for Medicine with Drs. John Enders and Frederick Robbins for discovering how to grow poliomyelitis viruses in culture for the first time. This breakthrough laid the foundation for others to develop the polio vaccine and later other vaccines. The discovery demonstrated that scientists could grow viruses in human tissues in test tubes, foregoing the need for laboratory animals and speeding the way towards other vaccines.

Polio was eliminated from the Americas in 1994, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 16,000 cases of paralytic polio occurred each year in the U.S. before the availability of the vaccine. The disease still afflicts children in other parts of the world in small numbers.

Dr. Weller later was involved in isolating and growing varicella-zoster, the cause of chicken pox and shingles, and cytomegalovirus, a member of the herpesvirus family that can cause birth defects. He and others discovered rubella, which causes German measles. Dr. Weller maintained a lifelong interest in parasitology as well as virology and was keenly interested in the control of schistosomiasis.

“Beyond his pioneering scientific breakthroughs in growing polio in culture and discovering varicella and rubella viruses, all of which made the new vaccines possible, Professor Weller became a champion for public health and the effort to focus the best of science on the diseases and health problems of the poorest people on the globe,” said Barry R. Bloom, Dean of Harvard School of Public Health. “His impact has been incalculable, and his legacy will be something cherished by generations to come at HSPH and far beyond.”

Dr. Weller earned a BA from the University of Michigan in 1936. A year later, he received a masters of science degree. He came to Harvard Medical School (HMS) in the 1930s, where he undertook studies in what was then the Department of Comparative Pathology and Tropical Medicine. His interests broadened to include general infectious diseases and viruses. He was graduated from HMS in 1940 and received clinical training at Children’s Hospital Boston. Two years later, he began serving at a laboratory in Puerto Rico with the Medical Corps of the U.S. Army, where he worked on malaria control.

After the war, Dr. Weller returned to Children’s Hospital and HMS. The Department of Comparative Pathology and Tropical Medicine was renamed the Department of Tropical Public Health and was transferred from HMS to HSPH. In 1954, Dr. Weller was named the Richard Pearson Strong Professor of Tropical Public Health and became head of the department, a role he served until 1981. (In 1997, the Department of Tropical Public Health merged with the Departments of Cancer Biology and Molecular and Cellular Toxicology to form Immunology and Infectious Diseases and Cancer Cell Biology). Dr. Weller achieved emeritus status in 1985.

“Thomas Weller was one of the great scientists of the 20th century and a leader in neglected tropical diseases,” said Dyann Wirth, chair of the HSPH Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases and Richard Pearson Strong Professor of Infectious Diseases. “He inspired many during his lifetime, and his vision led an entire field for many decades. His legacy is one to be remembered.”

In addition to his Nobel Prize, Professor Weller received the E. Mead Johnson Award of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Bristol Award of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the George Ledlie Prize of Harvard University, and the VZV Research Foundation Scientific Achievement Award. He directed the Commission on Parasitic Diseases of the American Armed Forces Epidemiological Board. In 1964, he was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. He has held positions with the U.S. Public Health Service, World Health Organization, and U.S. Agency for International Development. In 1996, he received the Walter Reed Medal from the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. He wrote an autobiography in 2004 entitled, Growing Pathogens in Tissue Cultures: Fifty Years in Academic Tropical Medicine, Pediatrics, and Virology.

Dr. Weller is survived by his wife, Kathleen (Fahey); two sons, Pete and Robert; one daughter, Janet; and six grandchildren. He lived in Needham, MA. His family plans a private service. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Needham Public Library, 1139 Highland Ave., Needham, MA 02494. HSPH will honor Dr. Weller’s life and achievements with a memorial service during the upcoming academic year.


Christina Roache
Harvard School of Public Health
677 Huntington Ave.
Boston, MA 02115


Harvard School of Public Health is dedicated to advancing the public’s health through learning, discovery, and communication. More than 400 faculty members are engaged in teaching and training the 1,000-plus student body in a broad spectrum of disciplines crucial to the health and well being of individuals and populations around the world. Programs and projects range from the molecular biology of AIDS vaccines to the epidemiology of cancer; from risk analysis to violence prevention; from maternal and children’s health to quality of care measurement; from health care management to international health and human rights.