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Opinion Robert Francis: My cousin (maybe) saved your life

Robert Francis: My cousin (maybe) saved your life

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Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

Vaccine. I didn’t really think I would be that excited about a vaccine in my lifetime. A baby boomer, I grew up in the age of vaccines. Polio, chicken pox, measles, tetanus: We children of the ‘60s got them all. Or at least everyone I knew did. Who were we to protest? (We’d do that a few years later). But  as bright-eyed kids, when your parents told you to roll up your sleeve and not to look, that’s what you did as the doctor or nurse stuck you with a needle so large and menacing we would deem it child abuse today.

I don’t remember taking a flu vaccine until I went to work for a magazine that required both international travel and travel to conferences where thousands of people from all over the world screamed into your face about their great new technology. The magazine required a flu shot or no travel. From the time I was 6, I wanted to be a “traveling writer” (I’m not sure I even knew what that meant when I said it), so I took my shot. I’ve taken it ever since to no ill effect that I can discern.

Now there is apparently a vaccine that works against COVID-19.

Pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech have created vaccines made from messenger RNA, known as mRNA, that can apparently offer high levels of protection by preventing COVID-19 among people who are vaccinated. Good job you, I’d say. Angels in lab coats and all that.

Speaking of pandemics, I’ve always been fascinated by the 1918 influenza pandemic and read about it and asked older people about it back in the day when they were still around. The fascinating and confounding thing about that pandemic is that scientists didn’t really know about viruses or what they did then, though they almost – very frustrating word almost – figured it out before the pandemic finally petered out, leaving death and destruction in its wake.

Thomas Francis Jr., courtesy

So when did the first flu vaccine come about, I wondered? I began doing some research and … voila. Before I got too far, I found what could be a family connection. Meet my cousin Thomas Francis Jr. Okay, I don’t really know if he’s a cousin, but there aren’t really that many families around that spell their last name Francis with an “i” so there’s probably some connection. Ancestry.com, check my spit again.

So who was this illustrious Francis? According to what I read at the University of Michigan, my cousin T.F., or Tommy to his friends, was born in Gas City, Indiana, to a father who was a steelworker and part-time minister. He graduated from Allegheny College on a scholarship in 1921, and received his medical degree from Yale in 1925. He then went to the Rockefeller Institute, where he joined an elite research team then preparing vaccines against bacterial pneumonia, then switched diseases, focusing on influenza research. He became the first American to isolate human flu virus, according to the University of Michigan.

In 1933, Francis married Dorothy Packard Otton, and they had two children, who might still be around and should look me up. By 1938, he had become a professor of bacteriology and chair of the department of the New York University College of Medicine, where he remained until 1941, when he received an invitation from Henry F. Vaughan to join the newly established School of Public Health at the University of Michigan.

Francis and Jonas Salk served as lead researchers at UM to develop the first inactivated flu vaccine with support from the U.S. Army. Their vaccine used fertilized chicken eggs in a method that is still used to produce most flu vaccines today. The Army is involved with this research because of their experience with troop loss from flu illness and deaths during WWI. Good job you, cousin.

Francis built a virus laboratory and a Department of Epidemiology at the University of Michigan and he taught a young Jonas Salk the methodology of vaccine development. Salk’s work at Michigan ultimately led to his polio vaccine, in case you didn’t know.

And Francis was involved in that, too. In 1953, he was asked to design, supervise, and evaluate the field trials of the polio vaccine developed by his former protégé, Jonas Salk. It was Francis who demanded a massive trial involving about 1.8 million children from the U.S., Canada and Finland. Basically, Francis set up the medical version of D-Day to assure the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.

On April 12, 1955, just a few months before his cousin (me) was born, Francis announced to an expectant world that the Salk vaccine was “safe, effective, and potent.”

Over the years, Francis received many honors and awards, notably the Medal of Freedom from the U.S. Army in 1946.

Arnold Monto, professor of epidemiology, came to the University of Michigan because he wanted to continue his research on respiratory infections. Monto described Francis as a demanding leader – he would not allow for sweeping generalizations in scientific results, instead insisting upon the evidence to back everything up, according to the University of Michigan.

“He made us into people who question things, who took nothing for granted,” Monto said. In other words, Tommy Francis would have been a damn good journalist, though I’m glad he concentrated on the flu.

Here’s a quote from Francis that bears remembering: “Epidemiology must constantly seek imaginative and ingenious teachers and scholars to create a new genre of medical ecologists who, with both the fine sensitivity of the scientific artist, and the broad perception of the community sculptor, can interpret the interplay of forces which result in disease.”

Thomas Francis Jr. died in 1969.

Last time I got a flu shot, the nurse who gave me the injection looked so young I started to ask him what middle school he attended. Next time I’ll tell him, hey be careful, my family helped create that.

God bless you cousin. Good work you.

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