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​Polio Vaccine Pioneer, Julius S. Youngner, Sc.D., One of World’s Most Influential Virologists, Dies at 96

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Gloria Kreps
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PITTSBURGH – Julius S. Youngner, Sc.D., a world-renowned virologist best known for his contributions to the development of the first effective polio vaccine alongside Jonas Salk, died peacefully Thursday, April 27, 2017 at his home in Pittsburgh, surrounded by family.
Dr. Youngner, a Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of microbiology and medical genetics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, had a remarkable scientific career that spanned more than 60 years, influenced the careers of an entire generation of virologists, and has saved innumerable lives.
More than just an outstanding and inspiring scientist, Juli, as Youngner was known to friends and colleagues, was warm, compassionate and down to earth with a wonderful sense of humor. He joined the University of Pittsburgh in 1949, and served as professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology from 1966 to 1985, and as professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology, Biochemistry, and Molecular Biology from 1985 until his retirement in 1989. He continued to remain a large presence in the department, attending seminars as recently as last year.
“Juli’s infectious curiosity has fueled his own research and influenced all who had the privilege to work with him. As a direct result of his efforts, there are countless numbers of people living longer and healthier lives,” said Arthur S. Levine, M.D., Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of the Pitt School of Medicine.
“Julius Youngner once told a reporter that he intended to stay at the University of Pittsburgh for only a short time following his work on the Manhattan Project. But he soon fell in love with Pitt and the research opportunities here. I am grateful he stayed and that his work, with Jonas Salk and others, led to the polio vaccine. He was one of the world’s preeminent virologists and our University community will miss him immensely,” said Patrick Gallagher, chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh.
Youngner was born October 24, 1920 in New York City. He received a Bachelor of Arts in English with a minor in biology from New York University in 1939. A multitude of infections during his childhood led him to take a keen interest in infectious diseases and subsequently pursue microbiology at the University of Michigan, where he earned a Master’s degree in 1941 and a Doctorate of Science in 1944.
Youngner was then drafted into the Army and selected to work on the Manhattan Project studying the effects of uranium salts on human tissue. He was serving in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps at the National Cancer Institute when he was recruited to the University of Pittsburgh in 1949 to join Jonas Salk in the quest for an effective polio vaccine.
One of the first major challenges the team faced was to develop a method to generate sufficient quantities of the virus for experiments. Youngner developed the method of trypsinization for large-scale production of poliovirus that remains as an essential technique of modern cell culture.
He later developed a method to inactivate the virus without disrupting its antigenicity, or ability to produce antibodies. He also created a simple color assay to measure the concentration of polio antibodies in blood and ensure that the vaccine was working.
In 1954, the polio vaccine was tested in what Youngner has called “the greatest field trial in the history of medicine.” A total of 1.8 million children across 12 states were enrolled in a double-blind placebo-controlled study. By 1955, the vaccine was publicly declared a magnificent success and the vaccine was approved by the federal government for use on the general public. By 1979, polio had been completely eradicated in the developed world.
The success of the polio vaccine, which remains in use today, was a seminal event in the history of American medicine. Youngner was the last surviving member of the original team that developed the vaccine and his numerous crucial contributions were instrumental to its success.
“Dr. Youngner made monumental contributions to the field of virology. For most, simply working with Jonas Salk on the development of the polio vaccine would be enough for a career; he also made important contributions to our understanding of the antiviral roles of interferon, cell culture and other vaccines. It was an honor to meet him at Pitt in January 2016 and I was fortunate to have captured him on video talking about his career. He was a kind, well respected and thoughtful scientist who will be missed,” said Vincent Racaniello, Ph.D., Higgins Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Columbia University.
After his initial work on the polio vaccine, Youngner continued to make major advancements in the fields of virology and immunology. He explored the antiviral activities of the immune protein interferon, and together with colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, identified what is now known as interferon gamma. He also was the first to show that interferon production did not necessarily require viral infection, which led to the idea that the protein had utility beyond its antiviral properties. Interferon is now used in a variety of cancer therapies.
Most recently, Youngner discovered that persistent viral infections could involve the selection of mutants with dominant-negative properties. These concepts influenced later development of effective vaccines for Type A influenza as well as equine influenza, for which he was awarded more than 15 patents.
Youngner was a prolific scientist, publishing roughly 200 papers and mentoring dozens of students, many of whom went on to make great contributions to the field themselves. He also was a great champion of science policy and research. He held many consultant and advisory positions, was elected as president of the American Society for Virology from 1986 to 1987, and served on the editorial boards of a number of scientific journals.
He was the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Polio Plus Achievement Award from Rotary International in 2001. He earned an honorary doctor of public service from the University of Pittsburgh in 2005, the Chancellor's Medal from the University of Pittsburgh in 2014, and the department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics established an annual lecture series in his honor in 2015.
Youngner is survived by his wife of 54 years Rina Youngner of Pittsburgh; children Stuart Youngner of Cleveland, Ohio, and Lisa Youngner of Albuquerque, New Mexico; grandchildren Jonathan Youngner of Chicago, Illinois, Matthew Youngner of San Francisco, California, and Suzanne Youngner of Cleveland, Ohio; and half brother Alan Donheiser of Contuit, Massachusetts. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Tula Liakakis Youngner.
Archival images of Youngner can be found here. All images should be credited to the University of Pittsburgh.