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