NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Retired Rubella Researcher Parkman Is Mourned

Parkman, seated, poses against a light blue background.
Dr. Paul Parkman

Dr. Paul Douglas Parkman, an award-winning virologist whose research led to significant advances against rubella, died on May 7 at age 91. 

A 1950 graduate of Weedsport High School, Paul attended St. Lawrence University under an accelerated pre-med program and received his B.S. from St. Lawrence and M.D. from the State University of New York Health Science Center in Syracuse in 1957. After interning at Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown, he returned to Upstate Medical Center, specializing in pediatrics and serving as chief resident. 

He joined the Army and in 1960, was assigned to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland as a virologist. During this time he began studying the rubella (German measles) virus. 

Parkman was the first person to isolate the virus, which was the most critical step in developing the vaccine. He joined NIH in 1963 and partnered with Dr. Harry Meyer to develop the vaccine that would prevent infection and the resulting birth defects. Their vaccine started clinical trials in 1965 at the Arkansas Children’s Colony and was licensed commercially in 1969.

In 1967, while working in the Laboratory of Viral Immunology in NIH’s Division of Biologics Standards, the two scientists received an American Academy of Pediatrics E. Mead Johnson Award for their rubella immunity test and for the development of the first effective experimental vaccine against rubella.

As a result of their work, Parkman and Meyer held two rubella patents, which would have enabled them to profit from the sale of manufacturing rights. Instead, they assigned their patents to the U.S. Department of Health so that the vaccine could be distributed as quickly and affordably as possible, to as many people as possible. It was eventually incorporated with measles and mumps vaccines (MMR) and is now commonly administered as part of pediatric protocol.   

Scan of a news article with black-and-white photos of Parkman accepting an award.
Parkman receives an American Academy of Pediatrics Award in 1967.

He was also part of the team that received a patent in 1971 for the rubella immunity test. The Laboratory of Viral Immunology was, at the time, in Bldg. 29A on the second floor. 

Parkman had a long and distinguished career, holding multiple positions at Walter Reed, NIH and the Food and Drug Administration and authoring more than 90 scientific papers. He retired in 1990 as director of FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, and for many years continued to consult as an expert in his field. 

Among his many accolades are letters of commendation from Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and George H.W. Bush; the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation’s International Award for Distinguished Scientific Research and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Meritorious Award. 

“Few men can number themselves among those who directly and measurably advance human welfare, save precious lives and bring new hope to the world,” reads the letter to Parkman from President Lyndon B. Johnson. “Through your accomplishments in developing an effective experimental vaccine against German measles, you and Dr. Harry Meyer have joined that tiny legion.”

Parkman is survived by his wife of nearly 69 years, Elmerina Leonardi Parkman of Auburn, N.Y., and numerous members of the extended Leonardi family.

The NIH Record

The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

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