Robert Austrian

Michael J. Sherman & Stephen Shutt
William M. Sample

Like fellow Philadelphia Award winner Jonathan Rhoads (1976 Award), Dr. Robert Austrian did not know when to quit. Two days before his death, just short of his 91st birthday, he was at his lab working on the organism which he dedicated his professional life to: pneumococcus.After years of research and trials, his vaccine for pneumococcal pneumonia was first marketed in 1977. At that time there were 750,000 cases of this form of pneumonia in the U.S. yearly. Then, pneumococcus was showing a resistance to penicillin and other antibiotics, pointing clearly to a need for a vaccine. His breakthrough discovery earned him the prestigious Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award in 1978, the Bruce Award of the American College of Physicians and election to the National Academy of Sciences (both in 1979).

P neumococcal pneumonia was a major killer of the elderly and chronically ill. At the time of his research, over 90 strains of pneumococci had been discovered. What Austrian did was identify those types that most frequently caused disease. His 1977 vaccine contained antigens of 14 serotypes (serotypes are distinct variations of a bacteria or virus). In 1983 he introduced an improved version of the vaccine, containing 23 serotypes, which accounted for 85% of the infections associated with pneumococcal pneumonia. All his research developing the vaccine took place at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was on the faculty since 1962. Ever seeing the need to perfect the vaccine, up to the week he died, Austrian was testing strains of pneumococci sent to him from doctors around the world.

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.”

Lee Arnold

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).