Austrian was no stranger to infectious diseases. His father, Charles Robert Austrian, studied infectious diseases as a professor and internist at John Hopkins University. After graduating from Johns Hopkins Medical School, Austrian studied pneumococcal infections under Dr. Barry Wood. During World War II Austrian served in Fiji, treating casualties. It was at this time that he also worked on research to treat malaria. He then went to Burma to study typhus.
After the war Austrian challenged the prevailing medical wisdom that, with the introduction of penicillin and other antibiotics, pneumococcal infections had become a minimal danger to patients. While an internist and scientist at Kings County Hospital and the State University of New York in Brooklyn, Austrian, with Jerome Gold, demonstrated that pneumococcal infections often went undiscovered by standard testing, remained commonplace, and often resulted in mortality. Austrian’s contribution in fighting pneumococcal infections was thus two-fold—first proving the need for a vaccine, and then developing a vaccine that saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
Always the professional, Dr. Austrian was known to never being seen without a jacket and tie. Professor Stanley A. Plotkin wrote of Austrian: “If there is one word that summed up the man and the physician…it was elegant: elegant in person, elegant in thought, and elegant in action.”
Sources: Lawrence K. Altman, “Robert Austrian,” New York Times, March 30, 2007; Stanley A. Plotkin, “Robert Austrian,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol 153, no. 2 (June 2009); Frederick N. Rasmussen, “Robert Austrian,” Los Angeles Times, April 3, 2007; Obituary, University of Pennsylvania Almanac, vol. 53, no. 28 (Apr. 3, 2007).