THE "POLIO" NOBEL PRIZE
- THE 1954 NOBEL PRIZE MEDAL FOR PHYSIOLOGY OR MEDICINE AWARDED TO FREDERICK C. ROBBINS FOR HIS LIFE-SAVING WORK LEADING TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE POLIO VACCINE, WITH THE ACCOMPANYING CALLIGRAPHIC DIPLOMA AND RELATED MATERIALS.
- gold, ribbon, red morocco leather, paper, ink, satin
ACCOMPANIED BY: Frederick C. Robbins' Nobel Prize Diploma: 2 vellum leaves (each 13 1/2 x 9 1/2 in.; 343 x 243 mm) laid down in a crushed blue morocco binding, the right-hand leaf with calligraphic inscription in Swedish signed by members of the Nobel Foundation and the Karolinska Institute; the left-hand leaf with calligraphic inscription in Swedish below an allegorical scene in ink, gouache, and gilt by Berta Svensson-Piehl depicting a warrior slaying Polio in the guise of a gigantic serpent; the binding with beveled boards, the covers with a border of six gilt fillets, the front cover with central gilt laurel wreath enclosing Robbins' initials, the rear cover with a central gilt Rod of Asclepius, binding signed on lower rear cover by G. Hedberg and K. Hovboke, Stockholm. Protective blue cloth clamshell case.
ALSO ACCOMPANIED BY: Robbins' copy of the 1954 Nobel Prize yearbook, Les Prix Nobel en 1954 (Stockholm: Imprimerie Royale, 1955); an offprint from that publication of the Nobel Lecture by John F. Enders, Robbins, and Thomas H. Weller, "The Cultivation of the Poliomyelitis Viruses in Tissue Culture"; 6 other offprints by or about Robbins, one inscribed and signed by him with initials; and an autograph letter signed by Robbins ("Fred"), 2 pages [Boston, 3 June 1948], to his fiancée, Alice Northrop, announcing an important development in his research.
We are grateful to David Tripp for his assistance with the description of Dr. Robbins' Nobel medal.
Please note: The consignors of this lot will donate 25% of their net proceeds to Meharry Medical College, School of Medicine, Nashville, Tennessee. Dr. Frederick C. Robbins was on the board of trustees of Meharry Medical College from 1983 to 1996. He strongly supported increasing the representation of minorities in the health professions. Meharry Medical College is one of the country's oldest and largest historically black academic health science centers. Its mission is to improve the health and health care of minority and underserved communities by offering excellent education and training programs in the health sciences.
The American Polio epidemics of the first half of the twentieth-century panicked medical professionals, and struck fear into the heart of every parent. The paralyzing viral infection had the terrifying ability to strike young children and decimate their nervous systems, withering their muscles and twisting their limbs, and leaving them with lifelong disabilities. From the late 1930s through 1948, scores of virologists and other research physicians were working for a cure, many with disastrous results, including several fatalities. Finally, in 1948, a three-person lab affiliated with Boston Children's Hospital, The Research Division of Infectious Diseases, discovered how to grow poliomyelitis virus in human cell cultures, a finding that led to the development of the two most effective poliomyelitis vaccines, which, in turn, eliminated paralytic polio in many parts of the world. In urging the Nobel Foundation to recognize the extraordinary breakthrough made by doctors John F. Enders, Frederick C. Robbins, and Thomas H. Weller, Dr. Sven Gard, Professor of Virology at the Karolinska Institute, wrote that "THE DISCOVERY BY ENDERS’ GROUP IS THE MOST IMPORTANT IN THE WHOLE HISTORY OF VIROLOGY. … The discovery has had a revolutionary effect on the discipline of virology."
And yet, as Robbins was to recall more than four decades later, his "involvement with polio came about more or less by accident, and the events leading up to it had little to do with polio" ("Reminiscences of a Virologist," p. 121). Robbins went to medical school at Missouri and Harvard, before training in pediatrics. During World War II he served in the Army in the Mediterranean theater in an epidemiology unit working on a vaccine for typhus and hepatitis. After being discharged from the Army, Robbins returned to Boston Children's Hospital and joined the laboratory recently established by Dr. Enders. He was joined there by his former medical-school roommate, Tom Weller.
Because so many people were working on a solution to polio, Robbins initially resisted working on that disease. Instead he decided to attempt to "cultivate a virus from infant diarrhea, which at that time was still a major problem in this country. It seemed logical to use tissue cultures of intestine, and I set out to see if I could maintain intestinal tissue in culture. [At the same time] Tom Weller was attempting to grow the virus of chickenpox in tissue culture. He was using human foreskin obtained at circumcision" ("Reminiscences," p. 125).
One day, Dr. Enders suggested that his two younger colleagues inoculate some of their cultures with the Type 2 poliovirus they had in the lab's freezer. (Type 2, one of three polioviruses, is also known as Lansing, because it was obtained, in 1938, from a victim of polio from Lansing, Michigan.) While they did not anticipate success, the virus did grow, and results were even more encouraging when they began using human kidney for the tissue for their cultures. Despite their observations, Robbins and his colleagues were cautious: “Although it appeared that the virus was really growing in the cultures, it was some months before we could convince ourselves that this was true. We realized it was an important observation, but I, at least, was not fully aware of the impact it would have and had not the remotest idea that it would result in a trip to Stockholm. Our first publication appeared in January 1949 [“Cultivation of the Lansing Strain of Poliomyelitis Virus in Cultures of Various Human Embryonic Tissues,” in Science, 28 January 1949, 109 (2822): 85-87]. From that time on, our lab was visited by people from all over the world. Clearly, other investigators in the field had no difficulty in recognizing the significance of the work. We soon found that the two other types of polio viruses also grew in culture. …” (“Reminiscences,” p. 127). Robbins and his colleagues had succeeded where such titans as Simon Flexner, Albert Sabin, and Peter Olitsky had failed.
As David M. Oshinsky summarizes in Polio: An American Story, the implications of the discovery that poliomyelitis viruses could be grown in cultures “were enormous. By cultivating these viruses in a test tube, rather than in the brain or spinal column of a monkey, researchers could get a much better look at the changes occurring inside polio-infected cells. Far more important, a safe reservoir of poliovirus had now been created, free from the contaminating effects of animal nerve tissue. And that, in turn, made possible the mass production of a vaccine” (p. 124). Oshinsky also quotes the reaction of Thomas Rivers—the chairman of committees on research and vaccine advisory for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, who oversaw the clinical trials of Jonas Salk's polio vaccine—to Enders, Robbins, and Weller’s first publication in Science: “I’ll tell you one thing, that report sure as hell captured everyone’s attention. … It was like hearing a cannon go off.”
One of the earliest indications of the success of the poliovirus experiment of the Enders-Robbins-Weller laboratory survives in a laconic line in the June 1948 letter from Robbins to Alice Northrop that accompanies this lot. Robbins and Northrop had in fact met at the Research Division of Infectious Diseases, where she worked as a lab technician. Dr. Enders did not permit married couples to work together in the lab, and so when Robbins and Northrop became engaged, she resigned her position. In a letter largely filled with lab gossip and wedding plans, Robbins does mention in passing that “IT LOOKS AS IF LANSING MAY BE GROWING IN MY INTESTINAL TISSUE CULTURES WHICH IS A LITTLE ENCOURAGEMENT.” Just how encouraging, he would shortly realize. (Alice Northrop Robbins, a formidable figure in her own right, holds a place in Nobel Prize trivia for being both the spouse and the child of a Nobel laureate: her father, John Howard Northrop, shared half of the 1946 Chemistry Prize with Wendell M. Stanley “for their preparation of enzymes and virus proteins in a pure form.")
Robbins and Weller were interested in continuing their work on polio by trying to develop a vaccine, but Enders, who was in charge, “felt that this was not the kind of work our laboratory was best suited for. He considered the work to be rather routine and better done in a commercial establishment” (“Reminiscences,” p. 130). Robbins briefly considered joining Jonas Salk’s lab, but ultimately accepted positions, in 1952, at Western Reserve University School of Medicine and Cleveland City Hospital. Most of the rest of his professional life was devoted to Cleveland until his death in 2003: he served as dean of the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine from 1966 to 1980 and as president of the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine from 1980 to 1985.
In 1953, rumors began to circulate that the Enders lab had been nominated for the Nobel Prize. Robbins considered the news, when confirmation came, “a shock but a pleasant one.” He also expressed his gratitude to Enders for making “it clear from the outset that his two junior colleagues were full participants and that any recognition that might result from the work should be shared, and so it was” (“Reminiscences,” p. 131). Robbins and his wife sailed to Sweden, via England, and flew back, stopping in St. Mortiz, for some skiing. Although their travel and holiday used up most of his Nobel honorarium, one-third of the full $36,000 award, the Robbinses enjoyed their Nobel travels fully. One of his favorite stories is that when he went to a men’s store and said he need to purchase a tuxedo immediately, the salesman asked, “What’s the occasion? Did you win the Nobel Prize or something?”
The Enders-Robbins-Weller Nobel Prize was to be the only one awarded for research concerning polio. While Joseph Salk and Albert Sabin were nominated for the Nobel Prize, neither was selected. Their contentious public rivalry probably did not advance the cause of either of them. When in 1960, those two were nominated with Hilary Koprowski and Sven Gard in recognition of their polio vaccines, Gard declined the nomination on the grounds that the development of the various vaccines entailed no primary work but simply built on the breakthrough by Enders, Robbins, and Weller. Salk and Sabin did both receive numerous academic and public awards and honors, and Salk supposedly used to remark that he did not need a Nobel Prize because everyone assumed he had one.
Frederick Robbins, who did win the Nobel Prize, lived a good and great life, and had, perhaps, the single regret that he did not live to see the global eradication of polio, as he had hoped.
nb: The commissions to execute the Nobel Prize medals were won by two young Scandinavian artists: the “Swedish medals”—Medicine, Physics and Chemistry, and Literature—were entrusted to a twenty-nine-year-old medallist and sculptor, Erik Lindberg from Stockholm, and the “Norwegian medal”—for Peace—to the Oslo-based sculptor Gustav Vigeland (1867–1943).
Lindberg (1873–1966) was the son of Adolf Lindberg, a prominent medallist, chief engraver of the Royal Swedish mint, and professor of drawing at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Stockholm. The younger Lindberg’s career in many ways echoed his father’s. Having studied in Paris where he was influenced by a number of contemporary French masters, most notably Jules-Clément Chaplain, he became a renowned medallist who, in addition to the Nobel medals, designed medals for the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm as well as a wealth of other commissions. On his father’s retirement he became the Chief Engraver of the Royal Swedish Mint (1916–1944) and was for decades the Secretary of the Swedish Academy of Fine Arts. Although better known as a medallist than sculptor, a bronze bust of Alfred Nobel by Lindberg was acquired by the National Gallery of Sweden from an auction by Thomas Del Mar in association with Sotheby’s in 2009.
Lindberg was working in Paris when he received the Nobel commission in early 1901. Each of the designs for the reverse imagery had to be accepted by the respective institutions responsible for awarding the Prizes and the process of approval by correspondence was slow and at times contentious. Ultimately, Lindberg traveled to Stockholm to personally discuss his concepts. Upon agreement, he prepared plaster models which were reduced in Paris (Lindberg also prepared the dies for the Peace Medal from Gustav Vigeland’s designs). Lindberg’s obverse with the portrait of Nobel, adapted from an anonymous and undated photograph (http://www.nobelprize.org/alfred_nobel/biographical/), was completed before the first presentations of the Prize in 1901. However, the reverses were not yet finished and the initial recipients received base metal examples of the obverse which were replaced by the finished medals in September 1902.
Lindberg’s medals were well received, one critic noting that the artist “has shown in the execution of [the medals] a very rare ability, not only in regard to composition and artistic workmanship, but also in the delicacy of expression and feeling of form in his handling of the subjects. His likeness of the donator is excellent” (The Studio, XXVIII, pp. 143–145). The critical reaction to Vigeland’s work was less enthusiastic.
Erik Lindberg’s likeness of Alfred Nobel is probably one of the best-known medallic portraits ever created and has become internationally recognized as an icon representing extraordinary achievement.