Rarely Seen: Dr. Austrian’s Bacterial Incubator

Austian's Bacterial Incubator, The College of Physicians of PhiladelphiaGuest post by Anna Dhody, Mütter Museum Curator. She writes about an item in the museum’s recently opened Rarely Seen exhibit related to vaccine research.

A vital tool in biomedical research, this bacterial incubator was used to grow and sustain cell and microbiological cultures. The incubator can mimic the optimal environmental conditions for a particular organism when the researcher adjusts the humidity, temperature, and atmospheric conditions. Manufactured by the ELCONAP, Electric Heat Control Apparatus Co. of Newark, New Jersey, this incubator was used by Robert Austrian, MD (1916-2007), a pioneering physician, epidemiologist, and microbiologist in researching infectious diseases. Dr. Austrian was also a Fellow of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia from 1963 to 2007 and served as its President from 1988 to 1990. Dr. Austrian received his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and devoted the rest of his career to preventing pneumococcal diseases. Conducting research using equipment such as this incubator enabled him to show that pneumonia remained a killer disease despite the early promise of antibiotics.

Dr. Austrian is best known for developing a pneumococcal vaccine, which can prevent not only pneumonia but other infections caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumonia, including meningitis. While these infections can cause sudden death in infants and healthy adults, they primarily affect the elderly and the chronically ill.

Dr. Austrian suspected that despite the introduction of penicillin and other antibiotics in the 1940s, pneumococcal infections were not being adequately controlled. He began collecting patient records and samples and, after 10 years, published a landmark report in 1964 with physician Jerome Gold. The report stated that despite treatment with antibiotics, hundreds of patients had died from the infections.

This information prompted him to begin work on identifying the multiple strains of the pathogen, a difficult task due to the nature of the bacteria. The first vaccine developed and licensed in 1977 contained antigens to combat 14 different strains of the Streptococcus pneumonia bacteria. By the second licensing in 1983, it had expanded to contain 23 strains.

Dr. Austrian’s life-long work saved countless lives and his research methods of identifying strains of pneumonia aided the development of other vaccines. His New York Times obituary provides an informative account of his accomplishments.