Robert Austrian

[Age 90] The physician was an internationally known expert in the prevention of pneumococcal diseases.

March 29, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

Dr. Robert Austrian, an internationally known expert in the prevention of pneumococcal diseases whose research led to the development of the pneumonia vaccine that has saved countless lives worldwide, died Sunday of a stroke at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The former Baltimorean was 90.

"Bob was a pioneer in understanding pneumococcal diseases. He was very studious, competent and a model of the academic research physician," said Dr. Richard S. Ross, a longtime friend, and dean emeritus of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

"He was a great teacher, and when he was a member of the Osler House Staff at Hopkins, he was a highly regarded and well-organized clinician," he said.

Dr. Austrian was born in Baltimore and raised in the 1400 block of Eutaw Place. His father, Dr. Charles R. Austrian, who specialized in chest diseases and was physician-in-chief at Sinai Hospital for many years, was a highly regarded internist and professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

His mother, Florence Hochschild, was a well-known artist who worked for the preservation and beautification of Eutaw Place. He was also a grandson of Max Hochschild, founder of the Baltimore department store.

He graduated in 1933 from the Park School and earned a bachelor's degree at Hopkins in 1937.

He received his medical degree from Hopkins medical school in 1941. While he was an intern and resident at Hopkins Hospital, he became interested in pneumonia.

"Throughout his scientific career, Dr. Austrian, a soft-spoken, gentle man has steadfastly pursued the pneumococcus, the tiny organism responsible for 80 to 90 percent of community-acquired bacterial pneumonia in the United States," said a Sun profile in 1979.

He was director of Hopkins Hospital's outpatient department when he left in 1952 to become associate professor of medicine at the State University of New York College of Medicine.

Since 1962, he had been a member of the medical faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a professor of research medicine and had been chairman of the department.

After conducting successful clinical trials among gold miners in South Africa, he reported in 1976 that his vaccine was safe and effective. His 14 pneumonia vaccine was licensed the next year.

However, some in the medical community were skeptical about the efficacy of the vaccine in the United States, and it wasn't until the results of a control study were published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1991 that the vaccine won wide acceptance.

"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," according to a statement issued by the University of Pennsylvania. "What Dr. Austrian did to solve a major human disease problem, often totally by himself, is extremely rare in modern medicine."

"The pneumococcus has fed and clothed me for more than a quarter of a century," he told The Sun of his life's work in 1979.

Even though he retired in 1986, Dr. Austrian continued to maintain a busy schedule, spending part of every day, six days a week -- including last Thursday -- in his laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania hospital and attending weekly clinical conferences on infectious disease case management.

He continued studying pneumococcal isolates sent to him from colleagues around the world while analyzing the strain types to track the epidemiology of infection. By determining the various pneumococcal types, he was able to include them in future generations of the vaccine.

Dr. Austrian's work garnered him many awards, including the Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award in 1978 and election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1979. The auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania's Clinical Research Building is named after him.

Dr. Austrian also maintained an interest in ornithology, and for years his collection of 130 stuffed birds of different species was on loan at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

He was a fan of Broadway musicals and enjoyed classical music.

His wife of 37 years, the former Babette Friedmann, died in 2000.

Services are private.

Surviving are a sister, Janet Fisher of Madison, Wis.; and two stepdaughters, Jill Bernstein of Voorhees, N.J., and Toni Amber of New York City.

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