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Measles vaccine pioneer spends 90th birthday remembering years at Duke Hospital

Posted May 31

Not many Duke University Hospital legends still walk the hallways to see their own portrait on this wall.

Dr. Samuel Katz, though, isn't just any legend.

Katz, a nationally renowned pediatrician who helped pioneer the measles vaccine, is turning 90 years old this week, and he's still going to work at Duke University Hospital almost every day.

"That's young Dr. Katz," Katz said, pointing to his photo.

Katz was chairman of the Department of Pediatrics from 1968 to 1990. But when he first came to Duke, he already had an impressive resume, including his association with Dr. John Enders, who developed the measles vaccine.

Measles vaccine pioneer spends 90th birthday remembering years at Duke Hospital

Katz worked in Enders' lab at Boston Children's Hospital during the development of the measles vaccine starting in 1956 when the disease was common in children.

"Ninety-five percent of youngsters by the time they reached second grade had had measles," Katz said.

The hospitalization rate was high in the U.S. but fatalities were rare.

"In other parts of the world, the less-developed and resource-poor nations, they not only got measles-pneumonia, they died (from it)," Katz said.

Katz said the vaccine was rapidly adopted in 1963.

"Instead of millions of cases a year, in this country we very rapidly diminished to a couple of hundred cases a year," he said.

The disease was virtually eradicated, as were other childhood diseases due to successful vaccine developments.

Now, parents often take the vaccines for granted.

"Young parents haven't grown up with measles so they have no idea what the disease is," Katz said.

Katz said parents sometimes balk at the number of vaccines their children get: diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, measles, chicken pox, pneumonia. He said parents hear all the vaccinations and sometimes turn their backs on them.

He has seen many advances and many changes in medicine over his career.

In the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans and women were tiny minorities in medical schools and hospitals.

Katz married one of those courageous female physicians, Kathy, who still greets him at home every day when he leaves his office.

Measles vaccine pioneer spends 90th birthday remembering years at Duke Hospital

Katz still participates in medical policy discussions at Duke, something he'll think about as he celebrates his 90th birthday with family and friends this week.

"When we come back, I may sort of say, 'You can have this office. I don't need it anymore,'" Katz said.

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