Thomas C. Peebles, 89

Thomas C. Peebles, physician who isolated the measles virus, dies at 89

Thomas C. Peebles, 89, isolated the measles virus and changed the use of the tetanus vaccine.
Thomas C. Peebles, 89, isolated the measles virus and changed the use of the tetanus vaccine. (Family Photo)
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By Thomas H. Maugh II
Saturday, August 14, 2010

Thomas C. Peebles, 89, who isolated the measles virus, setting the stage for development of the vaccine that freed the world from the deadly scourge, died July 8 at his home in Port Charlotte, Fla. The cause of death was not reported.

Dr. Peebles also led a team that showed the tetanus vaccine could be given every decade instead of every year, developed a way to add fluoride to children's vitamins to prevent tooth decay and founded one of the country's first health maintenance organizations.

The measles discovery came in his third year after graduation from medical school while he was working in the Children's Hospital Boston laboratory of Dr. John F. Enders, who won the 1954 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for isolating the polio virus.

Enders assigned his young protege to investigate the cause of measles, which in the mid-1950s infected nearly every American child before age 15 and killed about 450 each year. When an outbreak occurred at a nearby elementary school, Dr. Peebles collected blood samples and throat swabs from infected children, telling them that they were "standing on the frontiers of science."

Attempting to grow the suspected virus in dishes containing human tissues, Dr. Peebles found suspicious blobs of damaged cells in the culture taken from an 11-year-old named David Edmonston. Nobody else in the lab thought he had found the virus, however, and Enders removed him from the project.

Dr. Peebles kept working on his own time and eventually isolated the virus. When he injected it into monkeys, they developed measles.

"I am sure, as is often the case in scientific endeavor, that much of the successful recognition and isolation of this virus lay in perseverance, newness to the field, and failure to be bound by the preconceived ideas that caused others in the laboratory to miss this new effect," he wrote later.

Using the newly developed virus strain, called Edmonston B, the Enders team developed a measles vaccine that was licensed in 1963 and the measles rate began falling sharply.

Later during the 1960s, Dr. Peebles led a Harvard team that studied the tetanus vaccine. They found that the vaccine contained tens to hundreds of times the necessary dose of the tetanus antigen, creating a danger of allergic reactions that was greater than the risk of developing tetanus. They proved that a lower dose was safe and that it could be given much less frequently than was the current practice.

While he was working at the hospital, Dr. Peebles also ran a private practice out of his home. During routine examinations, he noticed that children living in communities where water was fluoridated had fewer cavities. Organizing a clinical trial among his own patients, he developed a fluoride additive for vitamins that reduced cavities among children in non-fluoridating communities.

Thomas Chalmers Peebles was born June 5, 1921, in Newton, Mass. He graduated from Harvard University in 1942, then served as a Navy bomber pilot in the South Pacific during World War II.

A flight surgeon Dr. Peebles chatted with frequently during the war over copious quantities of "medicinal whiskey" persuaded him to enter the medical profession. At war's end, he applied to Harvard Medical School, only to be rejected because of a lack of pre-med courses and a "D'' in biology. He spent a year at Boston University studying pre-med, then reapplied and was accepted.

In 1970, he founded General Medical Associates, a group pediatric practice that was later merged with its largest competitor to become Harvard Health. Dr. Peebles served as president until he retired in 1991. He also advised the Reagan administration on health-care issues.

His marriage to the former Katherine Reese ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, the former Anne Diffley; three children from his first marriage; a sister; and five grandchildren.

-- Los Angeles Times

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