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The American Association of Immunologists

John Franklin Enders, Ph.D.

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Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

1954, with Thomas H. Weller (AAI '52) and Frederick C. Robbins (AAI '52) “for their discovery of the ability of poliomyelitis viruses to grow in cultures of various types of tissue.”

Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award

1954, “for his achievements in the cultivation of the viruses of poliomyelitis, mumps and measles.” Click here for more details.

AAI Service History

Joined: 1936
President: 1952–1953
Vice President: 1951–1952
Councillor: 1950–1951
ex officio: 1942–1946

The Journal of Immunology
Associate Editor: 1941–1943
Editorial Board: 1943–1958

Scientific Accomplishments

John F. Enders, Ph.D., AAI '36, president 1952–53, was awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with Thomas H. Weller (AAI '52) and Frederick C. Robbins (AAI '52) "for their discovery of the ability of poliomyelitis viruses to grow in cultures of various types of tissue."1 Before this discovery, scientists had been able to grow polio virus only in the nervous tissue of susceptible laboratory animals, commonly monkeys, in a painstaking process that yielded minute quantities of the virus. The work of Enders, Weller, and Robbins had the tremendous practical effect of enabling scientists to prepare large amounts of polio virus, making possible the mass production of the Salk killed-virus vaccine and later, the Sabin live-virus vaccine. The impact of their work, however, was not limited to the study of polio. Their culture technique gave researchers an invaluable tool for the study of other viruses; made viral research much less laborious, time-consuming, and costly; and sparked revolutionary progress in the field.2

After studying pneumococcus and other pathogenic bacteria for nearly one decade, Enders turned his attention to virology in 1939. He practiced and refined various tissue culture techniques throughout the 1940s while studying the mumps virus before applying these same techniques to the study of polio. As Weller and Robbins later recalled, Enders was "never one to rest on his laurels." After successfully cultivating the polio virus, he isolated the virus that causes measles and developed a live-virus measles vaccine. He later wrote that this work on measles gave him more satisfaction and was more socially significant than his work on polio. From 1959 to 1976, Enders studied virus-host relationships and viral oncogenesis, during what Wellers and Robbins recognize as "the final segment of a magnificently productive investigative career."3

In a 1961 issue of TIME that featured Enders on the cover, the editors wrote that he was "by virtue of temperament and academic qualifications, one of the deepest thinkers in virology. A philosopher of natural science, his contributions have been long-leap deductions and intuitions that guide other men's research, hypotheses that bypass a thousand experiments."4


Enders's route to immunology was more circuitous than those taken by most immunologists. The son of a banker, Enders was born in West Hartford, Connecticut, on February 10, 1897, and had little exposure to science during his early years. In 1915, he enrolled at Yale but left in 1917 to enlist in the Navy. He served as a flight instructor in the Naval Flying Corps during the First World War and afterward returned to Yale, receiving his A.B. in English in 1919. He spent two years working in real estate, a business he found dull, before enrolling in graduate school at Harvard to study English literature. He completed his M.A. in 1922 and began his Ph.D. studies but could not settle on a dissertation topic. His roommate at the time, Hugh Kingsley Ward, who later became professor of bacteriology at the University of Sydney, introduced him to Hans Zinsser (AAI '17, president 1919–20), the head of the Department of Bacteriology and Immunology at Harvard Medical School. Fascinated by the opportunities that microbiology opened to him, Enders abandoned his English studies in 1927 to study under Zinsser. He earned his Ph.D. in 1930.5

After completing his degree, Enders joined the bacteriology faculty at Harvard Medical School, where he remained for the rest of his career. In 1946, he established the Infectious Disease Research Laboratory at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Boston. It was at this laboratory that Enders, Weller, and Robbins carried out the experiments that led to their discovery. Although he officially retired in 1967 at the age of 70, Enders continued his teaching and research at Harvard and the Children's Hospital for another ten years.6

Enders died in Waterford, Connecticut, on September 8, 1985, at the age of 88.

Awards and Honors

Enders was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1946), the National Academy of Sciences (1953), and the American Philosophical Society (1955).

In addition to the Nobel Prize, he was awarded the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award (1954), the Robert Koch Prize (1963), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963), and the Scientific Achievement Award of the American Medical Association (1963).

AAI Service

Enders served The Journal of Immunology (The JI) for nearly two decades, as an associate editor (1941–43), a member of the editorial board (1943–58), and the representative of The JI to the AAI Council as an ex officio member (1942–46). He subsequently was elected to the AAI Council, fulfilling terms as a councillor (1950–51), vice president (1951–52), and president (1952–53). Enders later represented AAI to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1968–70).


1 "John F. Enders—Biography," Nobelprize.org, http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1954/enders-bio.html.

2 Richard Pearson, "J. F. Enders, Polio Cure Pioneer, Dies," Washington Post, 10 September 1985, C4.

3 Thomas H. Weller and Frederick C. Robbins, "John Franklin Enders, 1897–1985," Biographical Memoirs (Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 1991), 47–65.

4 "The Ultimate Parasite," Medicine, TIME, 17 November 1961. Earlier in 1961, Enders was included among the 15 scientists profiled by TIME when the editors named U.S. Scientists "Men of the Year" for 1960. "Men of the Year: U.S. Scientists," TIME, 2 January 1961.

5 David Y. Cooper, "Enders, John Franklin," American National Biography Online, Oxford University Press, February 2000, http://www.anb.org/articles/12/12-02000.html; Weller and Robbins, "John Franklin Enders"; "Biographical Sketch," John Franklin Enders Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library, http://drs.library.yale.edu.

6 Biographical Sketch," John Franklin Enders Papers.


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