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Wilbur A. Sawyer Papers 1879-1995
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Biography

Biographical Note

Wilbur Augustus Sawyer (1879-1951) was born in Appleton, WI. His family moved first to Oshkosh, and later to Stockton, CA in 1888. He first attended the University of California at Berkeley, but soon transferred to Harvard where he received his bachelor's degree in 1902 and his medical degree in 1906. In 1911 he married Margaret Henderson and they had four children.

After his internship at Boston General Hospital, Sawyer started his medical career as a medical examiner at the University of California. In 1914 he also began teaching hygiene and preventive medicine at the university's medical school. He also worked for the California state board of health between 1910-1915 -- first as director of its hygienic laboratory, then as secretary and executive officer of the board. It was during this part of his medical career that Sawyer headed a team of public health physicians to defeat an outbreak of typhoid fever in Hamford, CA.

Sawyer joined the Army Medical Corps during World War I where he served in the surgeon-general's office and the Inter-Departmental Social Hygiene Board. While simultaneously serving as head of the American Social Hygiene Association, his primary work during this time was in preventing the spread of venereal disease among servicemen stationed in the U.S. In 1919 Sawyer cemented his career track as a public health researcher and administrator by moving to a position with the Rockefeller Foundation's International Health Board (IHB). His first assignment was overseeing a campaign against the spread of hookworm disease in Australia, a project that occupied the next five years of his life. His fourth child, Wilbur Henderson Sawyer, was born there. Sawyer returned to New York in 1929 as director of IHB's Public Health Laboratory Service, which provided lab support for other Foundation public health activities taking place around the world.

Sawyer is best known for his role in developing a vaccine for yellow fever and working to eradicate the disease as a public health threat--he himself contracted a mild case. In 1926 he joined the Rockefeller Foundation's West Africa Yellow Fever Commission. Three of its most important discoveries were that the disease is viral, that rhesus monkeys could contract the disease and therefore be used for laboratory testing, and that the African and South American strains are epidemiologically the same. The IHB was renamed the International Health Division (IHD) and Sawyer became its associate director in 1928; that same year he was also appointed director of its Yellow Fever Laboratory. Sawyer, Wray D.M. Lloyd and Stuart F. Kitchen produced a vaccine by combining an attenuated virus, developed in mice by IHD researcher Max Theiler, with human immune serum. However, the serum was so scarce that its limited production resulted in only enough vaccine to inoculate researchers. In a broader application of his research, Sawyer modified Theiler's testing mechanism to determine an individual's yellow fever immunity, leading to a program that mapped the disease's global distribution.

He became IHD's director in 1935 and continued the laboratory's yellow fever work, resulting in Theiler's development of 17D in 1937. 17D was a strain of yellow fever that thrived on nervous system tissue that could be used without modification as a vaccine, unlike Sawyer's serum vaccine. 17D contained enough virulent to induce human immunity yet was gentle enough to prevent contracting the disease. The foundation provided free vaccine to American troops during World War II. Sawyer opted to use a combination of 17D and human serum to help prevent encephalitis despite Theiler's insistence that his vaccine could be produced without causing encephalitis. However reports emanated from Brazil that showed people immunized using this combination often developed hepatitis. Eighty-four American soldiers died after contracting hepatitis from the vaccine, whereafter Sawyer received condemning criticism for not only his vaccine choice, but for making his decision without due consultation. The controversy damaged an otherwise brilliant career and many believe prevented his sharing Theiler's 1951 Nobel Prize for developing the yellow fever vaccine.

Sawyer did have other successes during the war, specifically as supervisor of several military and civilian commissions related to the control of tropical disease such as the International Sanitary Convention and the Board to Investigate the Spread and Control of Influenza in the Army. He also organized and directed the Rockefeller Foundation Health Commission to prevent a major European typhus epidemic. Immediately after the American occupation of Naples, Italy in 1943, he organized a team to delouse the entire population via the first widespread application of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). This effort had an even larger impact in that by war's end, virtually all refugees coming into Allied-occupied areas were deloused with DDT, preventing typhus from becoming a major health threat.

Sawyer retired from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1944 and joined the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration as its director of health. Again using DDT, he organized a program to rid Sardinia of its mosquito population by spraying the entire island, thus ridding it of malaria. He fully retired in 1947 and returned again to live in Berkeley, CA.

Sawyer traveled to the world's most remote areas in Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and South America during the 1920s and 1930s working in the field to develop relationships and projects with local public health officials and governments. With colleagues such as Fred Soper, the IHD helped spread the science of public health to underdeveloped populations and cultures. His international reputation garnered him many awards and honors. He was president of several tropical medicine societies, including the American Academy of Tropical Medicine. He served as chairman of the U.S. Public Health Service's national advisory health council in 1940 and was Secretary General of the 1948 International Congress of Tropical Medicine and Malaria. He was awarded knighthood in Norway's Order of St. Olaf in 1926, the League of Nations' Leon Bernard Prize in 1939, grand officialdom in Cuba's Order of Carlos Finlay in 1940, and the American Foundation of Tropical Medicine's Richard B. Strong Medal in 1949.