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Francis, Thomas Jr.

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Thomas Francis Jr

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Thomas Francis Jr.
(July 15, 1900 - October 1, 1969)
Born in the United States
Year of Discovery: 1941



Image Courtesy: Lasker Foundation
You Can Get a Flu Vaccine at the Grocery Today Because of This Man!

Francis learned the value of hard work and dedication early in life. His father worked as a steelworker in western Pennsylvania, but still found time to serve as a part-time minister on the side. Francis applied these same lessons to his studies and earned a scholarship to Allegany College. He continued on to Yale for medical school.  After graduation,  he was asked to join a research team at the Rockefeller Institute.. He accepted and began cooperating in developing vaccines against pneumonia. But, to the great benefit of mankind, another disease captured his attention -  influenza. Francis poured himself into his research, and became the first scientist to isolate the influenza virus. He later developed the first vaccine to fight against it.


Influenza is a potentially devastating infectious disease, commonly spread through coughing and sneezing in humans. The disease is also spread through contact with the infected droppings of birds. Initial symptoms include fever, headache, tiredness, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, diarrhea and vomiting. More serious cases may lead to pneumonia, which may be fatal, especially when contracted by young children or frail, older adults. Though today it’s common to refer to the “24-hour flu,” this less serious illness is actually unrelated to influenza – its cause is gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. Prior to Francis’ discovery of the flu virus, and the development of the vaccine to fight against it, influenza claimed millions of lives worldwide. Descriptions of human influenza date back over 2,000 years, and it has been responsible for several pandemics or worldwide outbreaks.

Francis continued to develop his expertise in virology and studying how viruses spread. He worked closely with the military as the human influenza virus had dealt the armed forces a huge blow during World War I, and the military was determined not to let it happen again. That year, Francis also joined the newly formed School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. It was here that the “magic” began. Francis not only isolated the influenza virus, he also showed that more than one strain of the virus existed. This is particularly relevant today, as year-by-year new flu vaccines are reformulated to fight against the most dominant strains. Francis also developed the first effective vaccine to fight against influenza. His was a “killed-virus” vaccine. This type of vaccine uses a dead influenza virus. Since the virus is dead, it can’t give the disease, but it still causes the body to react and develop immunity. This continues to be the method used in influenza vaccines today.

Francis left his mark on many lives. His influenza vaccine has directly saved over one million lives. But, his indirect reach is even more significant. When Francis went to the University of Michigan, he built a virology lab and established a Department of Epidemiology. Epidemiology is the study of how diseases are spread through a population and how to contain them.  A former student remembers him as a “demanding leader” who insisted on precise scientific standards. One of Francis’ first students, pursuing postgraduate work in virology, was Jonas Salk who went on to develop the polio vaccine.



Introduction by Tim Anderson


Table of Contents

Links to More Information About the Scientist
Key Insight
Key Experiment or Research
Key Contributors
Quotes by the Scientist
Quotes About the Scientist
Fun Trivia About The Science
The Science Behind the Discovery
Personal Information
Science Discovery Timeline
Recommended Books About the Science
Books by the Scientist
Books About the Scientist
Major Academic Papers
Curriculum Vitae
Links to Science and Related Information on the Subject


Links to More About the Scientist & the Science

University of Michigan Profile:

Wikipedia entry:

Overview of the Thomas Francis, Jr. Medal in Global Public Health:

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Key Insight

Key Experiments or Research


Key Contributors

The Team
Explore other scientists who furthered this lifesaving advance.
Lifesavers: Polio Vaccine
John Enders
Revolutionized virology - did pivotal early polio vaccine work and developed the measles vaccine.
Frederick Robbins
Worked with Enders on developing tissue cell culture techniques for viruses.
Jonas Salk
Developed the first vaccine to fight against the epidemic killer polio virus, using tissue cell culture techniques pioneered by Enders.
Thomas Weller
Came up with several breakthrough ideas in the development of tissue cell culture techniques for viruses.
Albert Sabin
Developed the "live" polio vaccine, given on a sugar cube, used throughout the world.

Quotes by the Scientist

Quotes About the Scientist


Fun Trivia About the Science

The Science Behind the Discovery

Personal Information

Scientific Discovery Timeline

Recommended Books About the Science

Books by the Scientist

Books About the Scientist



Major Academic Papers Written by the Scientist

Curriculum Vitae

Links to Information on the Science