Did you get your flu shot? Thank Wendell Stanley.

Stock photo of vials of vaccine.

Dr. Wendell Stanley, the late professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, conducted pioneering research on the nature of viruses. 

Every winter, we are inundated with precautionary steps for preventing the flu. Avoid sick people. Wash your hands. Cover your mouth. And, most importantly, get a flu vaccine.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were an estimated 490,6000 hospitalizations and 34,2000 deaths due to the flu in 2018−19. Things could be worse if it weren’t for Dr. Wendell Stanley, the late professor of molecular biology and biochemistry. His pioneering work on the nature of viruses led to many medical advances and earned him a Nobel Prize in 1946. 

Until the 1930s, scientists knew viruses caused contagious diseases, but didn’t know what they were. Invisible organisms? Weird chemicals? Stanley’s work on the tobacco mosaic virus, which devastates tobacco crops, solved the problem. He crystallized the viruses in a test tube and found they can be kept inert for years — then viciously, voraciously spring to life when diluted. When flu epidemics swept through the military during World War II, Stanley successfully purified several viruses and developed the first vaccine, which proved to be partly effective. 

In 1946, Stanley serendipitously met Robert Gordon Sproul, president of the University of California, on a plane. Intrigued by the potential of virus research, Sproul invited Stanley to create and direct a new lab at Berkeley. He accepted — and its research contributed to the development of many vaccines, including one for polio, as well as a deeper understanding of the fundamentals of life. 

The namesake Stanley Hall carries on his legacy of transformational research. When it reopened in a new home in 2007, it united under one roof — for the first time in Berkeley’s history — scientists from different disciplines who could pursue discoveries that simply would not have happened otherwise. 

Read Stanley’s obituary in The New York Times.

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