In the early years of his career, as a pediatrician in the 1960s, John B. Robbins witnessed the ravages of meningitis, an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord that in many patients was fatal. Even with antibiotic treatment, those who survived often suffered brain damage resulting in intellectual disability, deafness or epilepsy.

It was a scourge, striking as many as 20,000 children per year in the United States and hundreds of thousands more around the world, yet it never attracted the attention accorded to the polio virus — “probably because we didn’t have a president who had recovered from it like we had with polio,” Dr. Robbins once told ABC News, referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Determined to find ways of protecting children from meningitis and other dangerous diseases, Dr. Robbins decided to become a research scientist, ultimately spending much of his career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

His most celebrated accomplishment was his role in the creation of a vaccine effective even in infants for the form of meningitis caused by the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae type b, or Hib — a medical advance that has been credited with saving as many as 7 million lives around the world.

“The Hib vaccine has reduced the incidence of Hib meningitis by 98 percent in less than 10 years — a truly remarkable achievement in the history of medical science,” jury chairman Joseph Goldstein said in awarding the 1996 Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award to Dr. Robbins and three colleagues.

“No other vaccine has ever shown such a rapid and dramatic effect in virtually eliminating a fatal disease,” Goldstein said. “The story of our four awardees constitutes a wonderful chapter in the history of medicine — comparable to the eradication of smallpox by Edward Jenner, polio by Salk and Sabin, and mumps and measles by Maurice Hilleman.”

Dr. Robbins, who had continued his research at NIH until his retirement seven years ago, died Nov. 27 at his home in Manhattan. He was 86. The cause was complications from prostate cancer, said his son Rob Robbins.

Dr. Robbins and Rachel Schneerson, a fellow NIH scientist, shared the Lasker Award with another team of researchers, Porter W. Anderson Jr. and David H. Smith, for research that began in the late 1960s. The Lasker Foundation described the two pairs as working on “parallel but separate tracks” to create the Hib meningitis vaccine that had entered widespread use by 1990.

They “shared their knowledge and insights on a routine and regular basis,” according to the foundation, “bringing the sum of their formidable talents to the problem of infant death and disability and finding solutions that have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and prevented much suffering the world over.”

Their key challenge was designing the Hib meningitis vaccine so that it would work even in infants, who have undeveloped immune systems and were at the greatest risk of contracting the disease. An early form of the vaccine proved effective in older children and adults but in infants did not induce the production of antibodies to fend off the disease.

The problem was that the vaccine, known as a polysaccharide because it was based on sugar molecules that form the outer capsule of the bacteria, was not easily visible to infant immune systems. Dr. Robbins and his colleagues found a solution in a process called conjugation, in which a protein was bonded with the polysaccharide, thus rendering it more visible.

Today the vaccine is routinely given to babies as young as 2 months old, and the disease has “virtually disappeared” in places where the vaccine is used, according to NIH.

John Bennett Robbins was born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn on Dec. 1, 1932. Their surname had originally been Rabinowitz but was changed when his paternal grandfather, at least the third in a family line of rabbis, came to the United States from Minsk, the Eastern European city that today is the capital of Belarus.

He initially remained a rabbi in the United States, serving a congregation on the Lower East Side of New York that included busi­ness­peo­ple with interests in the garment trade as well as destitute tenement dwellers. He was stripped of his rabbinical title when he refused pressure to speak out against unionization, Rob Robbins said, leaving the family with little means of support.

Dr. Robbins’s father left high school to work as a laborer, including on the docks and railroads. He later founded a box and paper company with Dr. Robbins’s mother, raising Dr. Robbins and his siblings in an upwardly mobile home where education was prized.

Dr. Robbins received a bachelor’s degree in history from New York University in 1956 and a medical degree, also from NYU, in 1959. Early in his career, he was a pediatrician at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he trained in infectious disease and immunology, and where he saw the meningitis patients who inspired his shift to research.

In the late 1960s, Dr. Robbins joined the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, then moved in 1970 to NIH as clinical director at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. He worked for the Food and Drug Administration for a decade before returning to NIH in 1984 to found the Laboratory of Developmental and Molecular Immunity. He was a longtime resident of Chevy Chase, Md., before returning in recent years to New York.

Survivors include his wife of 63 years, the former Joan Cannon, a chemist, of Manhattan; four children, Rob Robbins, also of Manhattan, Daniel Robbins of Bonita Springs, Fla., Ellen Taxman of Boulder, Colo., and David Robbins of Grand Junction, Colo.; a brother; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Such was Dr. Robbins’s belief in the importance of vaccination that at an office holiday party in 1976, he furnished a swine flu shot to any guest who wished to receive one, Rob Robbins said. The party favor was a T-shirt featuring Porky Pig, proclaiming that the wearer had been vaccinated against the swine flu.

In addition to his work on the Hib meningitis vaccine, Dr. Robbins played a leading role in research on vaccines for pertussis (also known as whooping cough), typhoid fever, staph infections, E. coli and other infectious agents. He shared with his colleagues honors including the Pasteur Award from the World Health Organization in 2006 and the Prince Mahidol Award in the field of public health, awarded by the Thai royal family, in 2017.

In honoring Dr. Robbins in 1996, the Lasker Foundation noted that most physicians beginning their careers at that time or after would never have to treat the disease that had spurred his. Such was the rarity of Hib meningitis.