Robert Austrian, M.D., the John Herr Musser Emeritus Professor of Research Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and a leading figure in the prevention of pneumococcal diseases, died in Philadelphia on March 25, 2007. For more than five decades, beginning in the late 1940s, Dr. Austrian devoted his professional life to conquering pneumococcal pneumonia, a major killer of the elderly and chronically ill. With the discovery of penicillin in the 1940s, many thought that fatalities from pneumococcal pneumonia would become a problem of the past. Working with great mastery as a clinician, epidemiologist, and microbiologist, Dr. Austrian proved that bacteremic pneumococcal pneumonia remained a killer even in the age of antibiotics. Although more than 90 strains of pneumococci have been discovered, Dr. Austrian identified those pneumococcal types that most frequently caused disease. He used this information to develop a vaccine to protect against the disease, and he personally supervised clinical trials to prove the vaccine’s efficacy.

Efforts to develop a vaccine to protect against pneumococcal pneumonia had began in 1911 and were significantly advanced in 1930 when it was learned that sugar molecules on the surface of the pneumococcus are important components of a vaccine. By the late 1940s, two vaccines had been developed and were commercially available. The simultaneous development of effective antibiotics, such as penicillin, discouraged their use and they were withdrawn from the market. 

Dr. Austrian, however, was not convinced by prevailing medical wisdom that the pneumococcus was no longer a threat to the public’s health. He suspected that serious risks from pneumococcal infection persisted despite the prevalence of antibiotics and he initiated the laborious and meticulous process to produce the evidence needed to persuade a skeptical medical community. After a study of patients in New York’s Kings County Hospital from 1952 to 1962, Dr. Austrian and Jerome Gold in 1964 concluded that “highly effective antimicrobial drugs must be supplemented by other measures, both prophylactic and therapeutic, if the significant mortality resulting still from pneumococcal infection is to be reduced.” Dr. Austrian identified the pneumococcal capsular types most responsible for fatalities from pneumococcal blood stream infections and demonstrated that mortality was particularly problematic among the elderly. The fact that a mortality rate of 15% persisted despite antibiotic therapy was a sobering finding for the medical establishment that had erroneously concluded antibiotic treatment was sufficient to control the disease.

In 1962, Dr. Austrian left the State University of New York College of Medicine at Brooklyn to join the medical faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. There he served as the John Herr Musser Professor of Research Medicine and chair of the department. He continued his clinical and epidemiological work by developing a vaccine under the aegis of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and by conducting clinical trials among gold miners in South Africa. In 1976, he reported that the vaccine was both safe and efficacious. His scientific efforts culminated in 1977 with the licensing of a vaccine containing antigens of 14 serotypes of pneumococcus and in 1983 with expansion of the vaccine to contain 23 serotypes that accounted for 85 percent of blood stream infections associated with pneumococcal pneumonia. 

Despite skepticism in the medical community about the vaccine’s efficacy in the United States, a carefully performed case-control study in the November 21, 1991, issue of The New England Journal of Medicine by Dr. Austrian and others conclusively established the protective efficacy of the pneumococcal vaccine.  

The recent emergence of widespread resistance of the pneumococcus to penicillin and many other commonly used antibiotics highlights the incredible importance of the vaccine to the practice of medicine. Dr. Austrian’s foresight and perseverance were truly remarkable. What Dr. Austrian did to solve a major human disease problem, often almost totally by himself, is extremely rare in modern medicine. 

In recent years, Dr. Austrian has remained an inspiration to his colleagues and students. He was an active participant in the weekly clinical Infectious Diseases Case Management conferences held at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Incredibly, he spent part of every day, six days a week, working in his laboratory! He received pneumococcal isolates from colleagues around the world. He personally analyzed the strain types to track the epidemiology of infection, which was an important assessment for determining the pneumococcal types to include in future generations of the vaccine.  

Dr. Austrian was born in Baltimore on April 12, 1916. He earned his A.B. degree from The Johns Hopkins University in 1937 and his M.D. degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1941. 

Among Dr. Austrian’s many awards and honors are the Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award in 1978; election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1979; the Bristol Award from the Infectious Diseases Society of America in 1986; election to senior membership of the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, in 1992; and The Maxwell Finland Award for Scientific Achievement from the National Foundation of Infectious Diseases in 2001. Dr. Austrian received an honorary degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1987, a year after he became emeritus, and the auditorium in Penn’s Clinical Research Building is named in his honor. He was a remarkable scholar, academician, scientist, and gentleman whose efforts to develop the pneumococcal vaccine saved hundreds of thousands of lives around the world.  

Dr. Austrian was preceded in death by Babette Friedmann, his beloved wife of 37 years, in 2000. He is survived by his two stepdaughters, Toni Amber of New York City and Jill Bernstein of Voorhees, N.J.; his sister Janet Fisher, of Madison, Wis.; and numerous other close relatives. A private burial service is planned. A memorial service will be held at the University of Pennsylvania, details of time and place to be announced. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Robert Austrian Fellowship Fund, 502 Johnson Pavilion, Infectious Disease Division, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia PA 19104-6073.   

Written by Harvey Friedman, MD,  Chief, Infectious Diseases
University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine Obituary

Published in the New York Times (March 30, 2007)