Polioforever's Blog

Simon Flexner

Simon Flexner (b.Mar25, 1863 – d.May02, 1946); career director of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research


As a teen growing up in Louisville Kentucky, Simon worked in the pharmacy of his older brother Jacob where he taught himself microbiology. In 1890 he received an appointment to study at the lab of William H. Welch at Johns Hopkins University. The Governor of Maryland requisitioned  S.F. to study cerebro-meningitis in 1893, later leading to his most significant contribution to medicine, a meningitis vaccine, tested on the soldiers of Fort Riley Kansas in the winter of 1918 (perhaps this military human-experiment contributed to the ‘Spanish Flu’ which swept the war theater at the end of WWI). It appears that between 1893 and 1895, S.F.  was in Europe studying in Prague and Strasburg. In 1895, Skull-and-Bonesman Welch appointed S.F. to teach at the new Johns Hopkins Hospital (until 1898), thereafter S.F. traveled on  medical missions;  to the Philippines in 1899 and other locations, including a visit to Japan. The City of San Francisco experienced Bubonic Plague outbreak beginning in 1900 and Flexner was sent in 1901 along with Milton Rosenau (chief of the pre-NIH) and Llewylls Barker (UChicago) as the Federal Commission on Plague. Following the duties in California, Flexner returned to a professorship at the University of Pennsylvania, though he left this post  to become the Director of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, hired by William Welch as a second choice after first choice, Theobald Smith (Schmitt), declined. In 1903, Simon married Helen Whitall Thomas from a Quaker family of “Maryland aristocracy”. Helen’s sister, M. Carey Thomas, was the dean of Bryn Mawr College.

Simon Flexner spent the rest of his career as the Director of the RIMR. He hand-picked his staff and ruled with an iron fist, noted for ‘hovering’ over the associates’ work who were admittedly afraid of him. A profile of his character and some of the momentous events in the RIMR are given in the book “The Great Influenza” by John Barry who writes that S.F. was “mean and ruthless”. In 1913, S.F. became president of the Carnegie Institute and an officer in the newly established Rockefeller Foundation. During the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, the RIMR became the US Army Auxilliary Lab #1, a status that was never revoked. It does not appear in any biographical record, however the distribution of meningitis vaccine in Fort Riley by Rockefeller administrator Frederick Gates is noted in the Simon Flexner Papers collection at the American Philosophical Association http://www.amphilsoc.org/library/mole/f/flexner2.htm. After WWI, Flexner was apprised of “post-vaccinal” encephalitis caused by the vaccine, but no action is known to have been taken. S.F.’s meningitis vaccine was considered a great success, his enduring legacy, and no one has ever improved on his record of ‘prevention’. Post-vaccinal encephalitis commonly followed injection with vaccines and can be shown by WHO records such as this background of yellow fever http://www.who.int/vaccines-documents/DocsPDF/www9842.pdf

Simon Flexner is credited as a discoverer of poliovirus along with the Austrian Karl Landsteiner, in 1908-09 ( the Rockefeller concurrently founded its Sanitary Commission); he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in this year. In 1911, S.F. announced to the New York Times that he was very near  to a polio vaccine breakthrough which never occurred. Medical researchers criticized S.F. and the Rockefeller for ‘holding up’ the progress. When Flexner retired in 1936, RIMR colleague Albert Sabin continued the vaccine research after his relocation to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Throughout Simon Flexner’s career at RIMR he edited the official journal, the Journal of Experimental Medicine (JEM) originally founded in 1896 by William H. Welch  (who was the RIMR’s President at its founding) and a record of many of Flexner’s publications are extant in the online JEM. Before the Great Influenza of 1918, Flexner played a crucial role in the crisis response of NYC to the 1916 Polio Epidemic. He served as the Public Health Commissioner for New York State.  The entire issue of the April 1917 JEM is a reflection of Flexner’s effort to produce a polio vaccine despite his record of the outbreak as an epidemic of diphtheria and pneumonia. In 1919, Flexner was elected to Britain’s Royal Society.

Simon and Helen had two sons, William and James.  James Thomas Flexner co-authored “William H. Welch and the Rise of Modern Medicine” with his father and is in the Who’s Who in America as an historian, writing over 20 books on art, US history, and biographies, including his parents and himself http://fordhampress.com/detail.html?session=e093573e3c08b9d2101be04b2982b4dd&cat=15&id=9780823216611. William Welch Flexner went to Princeton for graduate study in 1926, receiving a PhD in 1930; he has had his oral interview transcripts ’sealed’ until the year 2020 http://www.princeton.edu/~mudd/finding_aids/mathoral/pm04.htm


See The Flexners http://citizen2009.wordpress.com/the-flexners/   to read more about Simon’s famous family and his brothers Bernard and Abraham.


March 1863 – born the fourth child (of nine), to Moritz and Esther, 1848 Jewish immigrants http://www.whonamedit.com/doctor.cfm/3004.html

Simon Flexner dropped out of school in the 6th grade [ref. “The Great Influenza”, John Barry], deliquent

Self-taught microbiology in brother Jacob’s pharmacy

1882 – One year of study in pharmacy

1888 –  one year of compressed study in medicine at University of Louisville with no clinical training, rec’d MD in 1889

1891 – associate “professor” of patholgy at Johns Hopkins University, William Welch lab Fellow, predating the existence of the JHU School of Medicine

1892 – studies cerebro-meningitis, publishes

1893 – founding of JHU Med.

         – S.F. studying under Friedrich von Recklinghausen in Strassburg, noted to visit Prague

1895 – Flexner teaches pathology at JHU Hospital

1896 – publishes his autopsy observations  from “influenza” victims that colon bacteria “wandering through the intestinal walls”  infect the lungs, heart and kidneys. In 1897, he establishes confirmation that gut bacteria can be turned virulent by ‘artificial treatments’.

1898 – becomes full professor

1899 – sent to the newly acquired Philippines with 2 students for several months to  isolate dysentary bacillus. Visits Kitasato Institute of Infectious Disease (UTokyo)in Japan.

          – Flexner’s dysentery bacteria discovery is named for him >> “In humans and other primates, Shigella flexneri causes an acute bloody diarrhea known as shigellosis or bacillary dysentery” http://microbewiki.kenyon.edu/index.php/Shigella_flexneri

           – appointment to professorship at Univ. Pennsylvania (Kitasato’s colleague, Hideyo Noguchi, joins Flexner as his assistant pathologist)

1901 – selected as one of seven to the new Board of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research

          – elected to the American Philosophical Society (akin to the British Royal Society; Flexner’s Papers are archived at the APS)

         – sent to San Francisco, with Milton Rosenau and Llewellys Barker as the Federal Commission on Plague, to study Bubonic outbreak

1903 – Becomes Director of the RIMR

          – marries Helen Whitall Thomas, from Quaker ‘aristocracy’. Helen’s sister, Martha Carey Thomas, was dean of Bryn Mawr. Their father helped found the Johns Hopkins Medical School ( Bryn Mawr is considered the ‘sister’ school of JHU) and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

1905 – NYC has cerebro-meningitis outbreak – Flexner’s private specialty

1907 – NYC has polio outbreak – polio, too, becomes Flexner’s private specialty

1908 – elected to the National Academy of Sciences

           – repeats the poliovirus isolation experiment of Karl Landsteiner, assisted by Paul Lewis; first polio article appears in the JEM

          – son, James Thomas Flexner is born

1913 – becomes President of the Carnegie Institute

          – signs new Rockefeller Foundation charter by Congress

1916 – NYC, largest polio outbreak to date. Flexner is the Chairman of the Public Health Commission of New York State

1917 – ‘inducted’ into the Army as a Lt. Colonel.  Rockefeller’s International Health Board establishes it European headquarters in Paris and funds ‘train car’ laboratories in conjunction with the Red Cross. At the outbreak of Spanish Flu, the Rockefeller Institute (RIMR) becomes the
Army’s primary auxillary lab at the ‘suggestion’ of Flexner. The three Flexner brothers (Simon, Abraham and Bernard) are actively traveling during the war. Bernard Flexner leads a Red Cross delegation with trainloads of supplies to Russia and Roumania which arrives in Petrograd weeks before the Bolshevik takeover.

1919 – elected to the British Royal Society

1920 – travel citations, http://ellisislandrecords.org/sear…&dwpdone=1  and a magazine notice: “Passengers back from Europe include Dr. Flexner, Dr. Charles H. Mayo and Harold Vanderbilt”…Aug.7, 1920; Flexner attended the Geneva Red Cross convention… traveling with Alfred E. Cohn bearing a $5 million gift from the Rockefeller Foundation…http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9E04E1DC1E31E433A25754C0A96E9C946195D6CF 


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