Julius Youngner, Pitt polio pioneer, dies at 96
Julius S. Youngner, a key member of the University of Pittsburgh team that developed a polio vaccine with Dr. Jonas E. Salk, has died.
Youngner was a virologist and microbiologist who spent 56 years working at Pitt. He died Thursday night at his Squirrel Hill home surrounded by family.
He was 96.
A New York City native, Youngner came to Pittsburgh in 1949 after working on the Manhattan Project, the government’s clandestine program to develop an atomic bomb.
The Army assigned him to a top-secret unit in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to examine the toxicity of uranium salts. Younger also worked at the National Institutes of Health, where he first became interested in virus research.
His contributions to Salk’s vaccine were critical to its success.
The most prominent was a rapid color test he designed to measure the amount of poliovirus in living tissue culture. He also developed techniques for trypsinization — a method that used the enzyme trypsin to harvest the polio virus in large quantities. This technique enabled vaccine-makers to produce material to make vaccines for everyone.
At Pitt, he served as professor and chair of the department of microbiology from 1966 to 1985, and as professor and chair of the department of microbiology, biochemistry, and molecular biology from 1985 until his retirement in 1989. He maintained a large presence in the department, attending a seminar as recently as last year.
“Juli’s infectious curiosity has fueled his own research and influenced all who had the privilege to work with him. As a direct result of his efforts, there are countless numbers of people living longer and healthier lives,” said Dr. Arthur S. Levine, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and dean of Pitt’s School of Medicine.
“Julius Youngner once told a reporter that he intended to stay at the University of Pittsburgh for only a short time following his work on the Manhattan Project. But he soon fell in love with Pitt and the research opportunities here. I am grateful he stayed and that his work, with Jonas Salk and others, led to the polio vaccine. He was one of the world’s preeminent virologists and our University community will miss him immensely,” Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in a statement.
His work with Salk was not without controversy.
Youngner told the Tribune-Review in 2005 that Salk failed to acknowledge his lab colleagues during a speech at the University of Michigan on April 12, 1955. On that day the world learned the polio vaccine worked. Salk’s perceived oversight forever damaged his relationship with Youngner.
“Some of them were crying after we left,” Youngner said at the time of his colleagues. “People really held it against him that he had grandstanded like that and really done the most un-collegial thing that you can imagine.”
Salk’s achievement along with his vaccine team ended years of fear and anxiety surrounding an illness that spread misery and death in the United States from the late 1800s to the mid-20th century.
At its peak, polio crippled an average of 1,000 children every day in more than 125 countries.
After his work on the polio vaccine, Youngner made major advancements in the fields of virology and immunology. Together with Pitt colleagues, he explored the antiviral activities of the immune protein interferon and identified what is now known as interferon gamma. Interferon is now used in many cancer therapies.
He received numerous honors and awards, including the Polio Plus Achievement Award from Rotary International in 2001.
He earned an honorary doctor of public service from Pitt in 2005, the Chancellors Medal in 2014, and the department of microbiology and molecular genetics established an annual lecture series in his honor in 2015.
Youngner is survived by his wife of 54 years, Rina Youngner of Pittsburgh; children Stuart Youngner of Cleveland and Lisa Youngner of Albuquerque, N.M.; grandchildren Jonathan Youngner of Chicago, Ill., Matthew Youngner of San Francisco and Suzanne Youngner of Cleveland; and half-brother Alan Donheiser of Contuit, Mass. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Tula Liakakis Youngner.
Editor Luis Fábregas contributed to this report. Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or [email protected] Reach him on twitter at @bencschmitt.