Max Theiler

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Pretoria, South Africa
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Max Theiler was a South African-American virologist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1951 for developing a yellow fever vaccine. He was the first Nobel Laureate from Africa. He was born in Pretoria, the son of a veterinary bacteriologist, and was introduced to medicine at an early age. He completed his post-graduate studies in London after graduating from the University of Cape Town Medical School. He finally got a diploma in tropical medicine and hygiene from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, after which he proceeded to Harvard University School of Tropical Medicine to do research. After working on amoebic dysentery and rat bite fever, he turned his attention to yellow fever research and began developing a vaccine to combat the disease. He successfully created a safe, standardized vaccination for the disease after years of intense research. The vaccine’s effectiveness brought him international renown and, eventually, the Nobel Prize. He also worked on dengue disease and Japanese encephalitis research. He contributed to two books, ‘Viral and Rickettsial Infections of Man’ and ‘Yellow Fever,’ and produced other scholarly publications.

Childhood and Adolescence

Arnold Theiler and Emma Theiler gave birth to Max Theiler on January 30, 1899, in Pretoria, South African Republic (now South Africa). His father was a well-known bacteriologist in the veterinary field. Both of his parents were Swiss immigrants.

Pretoria Boys High School was his alma mater. He was exposed to medicine at a young age and entered in 1916 at the University of Cape Town Medical School, graduating in 1918. After World War I ended in 1919, he moved to London, England to study medicine at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School, King’s College London.

He went on to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to extend his education, earning a diploma in tropical medicine and hygiene in 1922. In the same year, he was admitted to the Royal College of Physicians as a Licentiate and the Royal College of Surgeons as a Member. However, the University of London refused to acknowledge his two years of training at the University of Cape Town, so he did not receive an M.D.

Max Theiler had no desire to practice medicine as a general practitioner. So, after completing his medical study in 1922, he went to Harvard Medical School to work as an assistant in the Department of Tropical Medicine. His early studies focused on amoebic dysentery and rat-bite fever, but he later became interested in yellow fever. He and his colleagues established that yellow fever was caused by a filterable virus rather than a bacteria.

He began working with the Rockefeller Foundation’s International Health Division in 1930, and stayed with the organization for nearly three decades. He continued his research on yellow fever there, demonstrating that the disease could be transferred easily to mice.

The vaccine development was aided by his finding that the disease could be transmitted to mice. Theiler and his colleagues created the first attenuated, or weakened, strain of the virus after years of research, which led to the discovery of a yellow fever vaccine in 1937. The Rockefeller Foundation produced more than 28 million doses of the vaccine over the next few years, which were distributed to people in tropical nations and the United States.

In 1937, while continuing his virus research, he identified a filterable agent that was a known cause of paralysis in mice. The virus could not be transmitted from mice to Rhesus monkeys, and only a few of the infected mice exhibited symptoms. The virus was dubbed Theiler’s Murine Encephalomyelitis Virus later on (TMEV).

He joined the Rockefeller Foundation’s Division of Medicine and Public Health in New York as Director of Laboratories in 1951. He also did major study on the causes and immunology of diseases like Weil’s illness, dengue fever, and Japanese encephalitis, in addition to yellow fever.

He wrote publications for ‘The American Journal of Tropical Medicine’ and ‘Annals of Tropical Medicine and Parasitology,’ among others. In addition, he contributed to two books: ‘Viral and Rickettsial Infections of Man’ (1948) and ‘Yellow Fever’ (1949). (1951). He left the Rockefeller Foundation in 1964 and went on to Yale University as a professor of epidemiology and microbiology, where he stayed until 1967.

Major Projects of Max Theiler

Max Theiler is primarily renowned for inventing a yellow fever vaccine. The vaccine, which is manufactured from weakened yellow fever virus, is on the WHO’s List of Essential Medicines and is one of the most critical medications in a basic health system.

Achievements & Awards

He received the Chalmers Medal from the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in 1939. In 1949, he received the Lasker Award from the American Public Health Association. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Max Theiler in 1951 “for his discoveries about yellow fever and how to combat it.”

Personal History and Legacy

Max Theiler had one daughter with Lillian Graham, whom he married in 1928. At the age of 73, he died on August 11, 1972.

Estimated Net Worth

The estimated net worth of Max Theiler is not available.