Max Theiler was a distinguished virologist who played a central role in developing the Yellow Fever vaccine. In 1951, he became the first Rockefeller Foundation (RF) staff member to win a Nobel Prize.
Theiler was born in Pretoria, South Africa on January 30, 1899. He studied at the University of Capetown, St. Thomas’s Hospital, London, and the London School of Tropical Medicine, where he became a Doctor of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in 1922. He then moved to the United States to work as an instructor in tropical medicine at Harvard Medical School.
In 1930, Theiler was hired by the Rockefeller Foundation’s International Health Division (IHD) to research Yellow Fever and other tropical diseases. Theiler’s research into the causes of Yellow Fever yielded important discoveries. Most significant was the discovery that the disease was caused by a virus rather than a bacterium. This not only impacted how Yellow Fever was researched, but also changed the precautionary measures taken by researchers, who risked their lives to study the disease. Theiler’s research was an essential precursor to his development of a Yellow Fever vaccine, known as 17D—the name of the virus strain from which it is made. The vaccine was first produced in 1937, and the IHD funded the vaccine’s first field trials in Brazil. Following the success of those trials, the RF began funding the large-scale manufacture of the vaccine. The 17D vaccine is still used to protect against Yellow Fever.
Theiler won a Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research in 1949, and in 1951 he was awarded a Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his role in researching Yellow Fever and developing the 17D vaccine. In his acceptance speech, Theiler said, “I like to feel that in honoring me you are honoring all the workers in the laboratory, field, and jungle who have contributed so much, often under conditions of hardship and danger, to our understanding of this disease. I would also like to feel that you are honoring the memory of those who gave their lives in gaining knowledge which was of inestimable value. And, finally, I would like to feel that in honoring me you are honoring The Rockefeller Foundation under whose auspices most of the modern work on yellow fever has been done”.
From 1951 to 1963, Theiler served as Director of the RF’s New York Virus Laboratories. After leaving the Rockefeller Foundation, he took up a post as a professor of epidemiology and microbiology at the Yale University School of Medicine. He held this position until his retirement in 1967. Theiler died on August 11, 1972, in New Haven, Connecticut, at the age of 73. Papers related to Theiler’s work in the International Health Division, as well as the Max Theiler Family Papers, can be accessed at the Rockefeller Archive Center.