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Baruch Dayan HaEmet – Dr. John Robbins z”l

John Bennet Robbins, M.D., with the Lasker Award, 1996. Credit: National Institutes of Health photography

John Bennet Robbins, M.D. (father of Ellen Taxman), a pioneer in development of modern bacterial vaccines and co-developer of a vaccine that has spared thousands of children from a major cause of death and intellectual disability, has passed away after a long illness. He was 86 years old.

Dr. Robbins was the chief of the Laboratory of Developmental and Molecular Immunity at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), part of the National Institutes of Health, until his retirement in 2012. Together with his colleague, Dr. Robbins received the 1996 Albert Lasker Medical Research Award for developing the polysaccharide-protein conjugate vaccine for Hemophilus influenzae type b (Hib). The award is bestowed annually to those who have made major contributions to medical science.

Before 1989, Hib infected an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 children each year in the United States. The disease can progress to meningitis, a potentially fatal infection of the membranes surrounding the brain. Since routine use of the Hib conjugate vaccine in 1990, Hib cases have plummeted. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2015 there were .08 cases of Hib disease per 100,000 children younger than 5 years old.

He was an extraordinary scientist and public servant who remained passionate, even after retirement, about solving problems of vaccination and prevention of bacterial diseases.

John B. Robbins, MD received his BA and MD at the New York University in 1956 and 1959, respectively. He had Clinical Training at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University in 1959-1960, and Graduate Training in Infectious Disease and Immunology at University of Florida, 1961-1964. He was Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Immunology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine for 3 years before beginning his career at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health, in 1970. In 1974 he joined FDA as a Director of the Division of Bacterial Products, at the Bureau of Biologics, where he continued his work on vaccines against bacterial disease and was a major player in promoting the growth and strengthening of research on bacterial pathogenesis to support the regulation of biologics. He returned to NICHD in 1984, establishing the Laboratory of Developmental and Molecular Immunity to explore methods for developing vaccines against Hib and other encapsulated bacteria. In subsequent years, Dr. Robbins, and his colleagues developed a vaccine for pertussis and worked on conjugate vaccines against typhoid fever, Staphylococcus aureus, and other bacterial diseases. He worked there until his retirement in 2012.  He remained active after retirement, in vaccine development and was a global advocate of vaccine solutions to infectious diseases.

After retiring in 2012, Dr. John Robbins briefly joined the faculty of the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education at the City College of New York, before resigning for health reasons.

Dr. Robbins received many distinguished awards throughout his career and to name a few, he was honored with the E. Mead Johnson Award, given by the Society for Pediatric Research in 1975.  In 1985 he received the Meritorious Service Medal, a Public Health Service Honors Award.  For his work with the Hib conjugate vaccine, Dr. Robbins also received the Albert B. Sabin Gold Medal in 2001, the World Health Organization Children’s Vaccine Initiative Pasteur Award in 2006, and Thailand’s Prince Mahidol Foundation Award for Public Health in 2017. He was a member of the National Academy of Science.

John B. Robbins was a treasure trove of knowledge and a giant in vaccinology. He also had the generous heart of a giant. During his tenure at the FDA, he was noted for his annual invitation of the members of the Division of Bacterial Products and their families to his home to celebrate the Holidays. He will be dearly missed by his family, friends and colleagues.

He is survived by his wife, Joan of 63 years; his children Robert Robbins of New York City, NY; Daniel Robbins of  Sarasota, FL; Ellen Taxman of Boulder, CO; David Robbins of Grand Junction, CO; and nine grandchildren.

The Taxmans will hosting a gathering at their house on December 22nd at 7:00 pm officiated by Rabbi Greene and Holli Berman (Congregation Har HaShem).

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