Obituary for Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr.
Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr. was a physician, virologist and epidemiologist — and a true American hero.
A physician, virologist, and epidemiologist, Thomas Francis Jr.—T.F. or Tommy to his friends—was born in Gas City, Indiana. The son of a steelworker and part-time minister, Francis grew up in western Pennsylvania, graduated from Allegheny College on scholarship in 1921, and received his medical degree from Yale in 1925. From there he went to the Rockefeller Institute, where he joined an elite research team then preparing vaccines against bacterial pneumonia. Francis soon switched diseases, however, and took up influenza research. He became the first American to isolate human flu virus.
In 1933, Francis married Dorothy Packard Otton, and they had two children. 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.
That year, Francis received an invitation from Henry F. Vaughan to join the newly established School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. Earlier in the year, he had also been appointed director of the Commission on Influenza of the United States Army Epidemiological Board. Under the auspices of the commission, Francis took part in the successful development, field trial, and evaluation of protective influenza vaccines.
At Michigan, Francis built a virus laboratory and a Department of Epidemiology that quickly focused on a broad range of infectious diseases. When Jonas Salk came to the University of Michigan in 1941 to pursue postgraduate work in virology, it was Francis who taught him the methodology of vaccine development. Salk’s work at Michigan ultimately led to his polio vaccine.
From his Ann Arbor base, Francis gained national and international renown. In 1947, the Regents of the University awarded him one of the first Michigan distinguished professorships, naming him the Henry Sewall University Professor of Epidemiology. In addition to his work at the School of Public Health, Francis joined the pediatrics faculty at the University’s Medical School.
By the late 1940s, Francis had extended his studies of viral disease to include studies of enteric viruses, particularly the polio virus. In 1953, he was asked to design, supervise, and evaluate the field trials of the polio vaccine developed by his former protegé, Jonas Salk. A man of exacting standards, Francis insisted on a double-blind means of statistical analysis, so that neither patients nor administering physicians knew whether an inoculation was a vaccine or a placebo. He also demanded a controlled observation trial. Approximately 1.8 million children from 217 areas of the United States, Canada, and Finland took part in the trial. In scope and magnitude, it was unprecedented. On April 12, 1955, Francis announced to an expectant world that the Salk vaccine was “safe, effective, and potent.”
Six months later, Francis visited Japan at the behest of the U.S. government’s Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission. Charged with determining new objectives and a new strategy for the commission, Francis authored the “Unified Study Program,” which contained plans to investigate the natural history of a population over its lifespan.
Francis subsequently turned to the study of the epidemiology of chronic disease, and he created the Tecumseh Study. His aim was to build a community laboratory in the town of Tecumseh, Michigan, which could take advantage of geography, history, and local culture to lay the groundwork for accumulated data from which it would be possible over a period of years to draw secure inferences on disease precursors. Through the Tecumseh Study, Francis contributed profoundly to scientists’ understanding of the epidemiology of chronic disease, and furthered his renown as a scientist, investigator, and innovator.
Throughout these years, Francis taught and served as an exemplary administrator at the University of Michigan. He received many honors and awards during his career, notably the Medal of Freedom from the U.S. Army in 1946. About his profession, Francis remarked, “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.
ARTICLE CREDIT: https://president.umich.edu/honors-awards/francis-medal/about-thomas-francis-jr/