Benjamin Rubin
(September 27, 1917 - March 8, 2010)
Born in the United States
Year of Discovery: 1965

RubinBenjaminRubinNationalInventorsHallofFameThe Eradication of Smallpox Through Worldwide Vaccination

The Bifurcated Needle Allowed Vaccinations Anywhere and by Most Anyone

By the 1960s scientists began to realize that everything was falling into place to make it possible to completely eradicate humanity’s deadliest disease – smallpox. The vaccine was now freeze-dried (see Leslie Collier) and did not have to be given to every single person on earth (see Bill Foege). But how do you vaccinate people all over the world, in jungles, in deserts, on every continent?

One problem was that such a massive vaccination effort could not be performed by medical specialists. The world’s health care workers were already maxed out treating people. As late as 1967, smallpox was still mercilessly killing more than 2 million people every year. So untrained volunteers would have to do much of the work. 

Don't fear the needle, for it could save your life! In 1965, Benjamin Rubin, a microbiologist, came up with an alternative method for providing smallpox vaccinations – the bifurcated needle. The standard method of delivery at the time was the multiple insertion method. Needles were dipped into the vaccine vial and then jabbed into the patient's arm multiple times. This process, by even expert vaccinators, was never100% effective. Rubin sought to simplify the process. His design involved grinding off the end of a sewing machine needle, which opened the thread hole (the eyelet) and resulted in a needle that was divided into two branches, like a fork (bifurcated means forked). Rubin found that his new needle would hold just enough vaccine within the small space between the two sections to vaccinate a person with just a few pokes. His design achieved the simplicity he sought, and the needle could easily be replicated in areas that were less developed and be delivered by easily trained citizens. Plus it was close to 100% effective! Since his bifurcated needle used less of the vaccine, it also meant more people could be vaccinated in areas where the supply was short.

D.A. Henderson, director of the World Health Organization's Global Smallpox Eradication Program said, "If ever there was an invention which could be said to have truly benefited mankind . . . it was Ben Rubin's eloquently simple bifurcated needle." For his invention, in 1992 Rubin was inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame.

Rubin's needle design was a crucial part of the fight against smallpox. In 1980, the World Health Assembly declared smallpox "defeated." For the first time in history, man had eradicated a deadly disease. Even today, there is no cure for smallpox and, if exposed, as many as 30% of those infected might die from the deadly virus.

Written by science writer, April Ingram

Lives Saved:  Over 122,000,000

Smallpox is a poxvirus - one of a family of related diseases named after the creatures most likely to contract them - camelpox, raccoonpox, mousepox, monkeypox....

Smallpox is one of the largest viruses known. Sometimes shaped like a dumbbell when viewed with an electron microscope, it is a virus composed of DNA.

Smallpox killed more people in the Twentieth Century than all the Wars cmbined. It killed more than 300 Million people.

The last person infected by smallpox in the wild was Ali Maow Maalin, a Somalian cook. On October 26, 1977 he was diagnosed with Variola minor smallpox. He survived.  But after his immune system killed the virus, it ceased to exist in the wild.

Janet Parker, a medical photographer, was the last person to die from smallpox. She worked in the Anatomy department of Birmingham University in England. Smallpox was housed in a research laboratory on the floor below her office. In 1980 the virus escaped and infected her. The tragedy led to the suicide of Professor Henry Bedson, the Head of the Microbiology Department who headed the lab the virus escaped from. The last to survive smallpox was Janet Parker's mother, who was infected by her daughter.

The Order of the Bifurcated Needle
Oddly, due to infighting and envy at the World Health Organization, there was little celebration about the monumental accomplishment of those who helped eradicate smallpox. DA Henderson, the director of the operation through much of the effort, therefore decided to create his own award: The Order of the Bifurcated Needle, modeled after Rubin's invetion. Henderson had his daughter produce pins of a bifurcated needle bent into the shape of a zero. In all 812 people had served in varying capacities from 73 countries. Using his own money, Henderson mailed them certificates and the needle, one of the most notable awards in human history.

Vaccines are Ubiquitous & Omnipresent Throughout Our Lives
It is bizarre that vaccines are controversial, when virtually everyone has had vaccines. The average person born today may get 70+ vaccines in their lifetime. 

  • There are 31 childhood vaccines (counting booster shots). Over 90% of people have received some of these vaccines.

Virtually everyone constantly benefits from vaccines

  • Did you know that all beef, poultry, and pork you eat comes from vaccinated animals?
  • And that all horses, dogs, cats, and zoo animals are vaccinated?
  • Who wants to live in a world where you can’t pet your friends’ dog because it may not have been vaccinated, and may have rabies?

Key Contributors
Edward Jenner
Bill Foege
Leslie Collier
Benjamin Rubin
Aaron Ismach

Ben Franklin's Quote About Vaccinating His Children (from his autobiography)

“In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of the parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.”

Links to More About the Scientist & the Science
Inventor's Now Hall of Fame Profile