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(December 1, 1932 - )
Year of Discovery: 1987, 1990
Robbins, you could say, was addicted to sugar. But, in his case, the addiction was quite healthy. In fact, it was Robbins' fascination with polysaccharides, which are chains of sugar molecules, which allowed him to discover a host of vaccines. Perhaps the most significant vaccine, and certainly the one for which he is best known, is the Haemophilus Influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine. Hib is the bacterium that causes Hib disease, and most commonly manifests as bacterial meningitis. Bacterial meningitis is a devastatingly serious disease that typically strikes young children under the age of two. Robbins joined forces with colleague Rachel Schneerson, while working at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, to study the bacterium and develop the vaccine. Since their successful development of the Hib vaccine, the incidence of Hib disease in the United States has fallen by a remarkable 99 percent.
Haemophilus Influenzae type b (Hib) disease is an invasive disease that primarily affects children under the age of five. This is because these children lack the natural antibodies that children over the age of five and adults have to fight against Hib. Hib is thought to be an airborne disease, spread through the respiratory droplets expelled during coughing and sneezing. The most common result of Hib is bacterial meningitis, although it can also cause epiglottitis (infection and swelling of the throat), pneumonia, arthritis, and other serious conditions. Meningitis causes fever, headaches, stiffness in the neck, vomiting and, in severe cases, seizures. Both meningitis and epiglottitis may result in death. Even when death is avoided, permanent brain damage occurs in about 30 percent of meningitis cases. The majority of cases of Hib-caused meningitis occur in children under two years of age. In 1980, prior to the introduction of the Hib vaccine, there were 20,000 cases of Hib reported in the United States. Today, Hib has been virtually eradicated from the U.S., with only 341 cases being reported between 1996 and 2000. Unfortunately, due to the lack of widespread vaccination, Hib continues to be a scourge in other areas of the world. It is estimated that Hib kills 400,000 children worldwide annually.
Scientists are often single-minded in their pursuit of knowledge, shutting out all that doesn't further their cause. This quality not only marked Robbins' professional career, but spilled over into his personal life as well. While making a formal visit to the State Department, Robbins became intrigued with a beautiful Persian runner carpet, a private passion of his being Oriental rugs. He meticulously studied the weave, pattern and texture of the runner, following it down the hallway and into an exquisitely decorated room. Unfortunately, the ornate room was in fact the ladies' room - and, the security guard was intensely interested in knowing why he had stepped inside.
Introduction by Tim Anderson
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Press release announcing Robbins being awarded the Albert B. Sabin Gold Medal:
Robbins' acceptance remarks when receiving the Albert B. Sabin Gold Medal (pdf):
Chemical & Engineering News article on vaccines referencing Robbins' research:
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The Science Behind the Discovery
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