Hunein F. “John” Maassab, professor emeritus of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and developer of the nasal-spray influenza vaccine FluMist, died Feb. 1 in North Carolina. He was 87.
A world renowned scientist recognized for his extensive research into the creation and development of influenza vaccines, Maassab first isolated the Influenza Type-A-Ann Arbor virus in 1960 and by 1967 had developed a cold-adapted virus. Nearly 40 years later, his research resulted in FluMist, a cold-adapted, live attenuated, trivalent influenza virus vaccine.
“John spent more than four decades in our department of epidemiology, building on one finding after another, to develop the vaccine we know today as FluMist,” said Martin Philbert, dean of the U-M School of Public Health. “One of our school’s proudest achievements, the vaccine is contributing to the reduction of influenza morbidity and mortality worldwide.“
Maassab was born June 11, 1926, in Damascus, Syria. He received his Bachelor of Arts (1950) and Master of Arts (1952) degrees from the University of Missouri and his Master of Public Health (1954) and Ph.D. (1956) degrees from the University of Michigan. After receiving his doctorate in 1956, Maassab worked as an assistant in research in U-M’s Department of Epidemiology, then became a research associate in 1957, an assistant professor in 1960, an associate professor in 1965, and a full professor in 1973. He served as epidemiology chairman (1991-1997) and was founder and first director of the school’s Hospital and Molecular Epidemiology Program. In February 2003 he was named professor emeritus of epidemiology.
As a doctoral student in 1955, Maassab sat in the back of U-M’s Rackham Auditorium and watched his professor, Dr. Thomas Francis Jr., announce to the world that the polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk was “safe, effective and potent.”
Maassab went on to make medical history of his own, and to continue Michigan’s legacy of vaccine research and development. On Dec. 18, 2002, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee deemed the vaccine Maassab had spent 40 years developing to be safe and effective for healthy people aged 5 to 49. The vaccine was licensed in June 2003 as FluMist.
“John’s long professional life was a true testament to the value of perseverance in the pursuit of scientific discovery,” said colleague Rashid Bashshur, professor emeritus of health management and policy. “For several decades, John was totally committed and fully absorbed by his search for an effective and safe live vaccine for influenza. He set his mind on this goal in the mid-1950s after he witnessed the national press conference on the Salk Polio Vaccine by Thomas Francis on this campus.”
A teacher and mentor to many, Maassab treated his students as family, many of them would recall. “John’s impact on my life transcends the influence of a teacher/mentor,” remembered Armen Donabedian, chief, Influenza Vaccine Development, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/ASPR/BARDA. “John gave me my future.”
Three programs at the U-M School of Public Health honor Maassab: the H.F. Maassab Student Research Award, which funds research and presentation in the field of viral respiratory diseases; the Hunein F. Maassab Scholarship Fund, which supports students in epidemiology; and the Hunein F. and Hilda Maassab Endowed Professorship in epidemiology.
“Dr. Maassab was an inspiration to many of us at the university and in the healthcare community,” U-M Associate Vice President for Research-Technology Transfer Ken Nisbet said.
“His perseverance in developing the live strains for the FluMist formulation is legendary. The commercial success of FluMist allowed continued investments by the university into research and education, and inspired another generation of students and researchers. But the true value of his work lies in the millions of people who have, and will have, access to an innovative vaccine for the perils of influenza.”
Maassab is survived by twin sons, Sammy and Fred. His wife, the former Hilda Zahka, died in 2006.
• A timeline of John Maassab’s life and career: www.sph.umich.edu/news_events/flumist/timeline.html
• The New York Times obituary: tinyurl.com/mkojljv
— Submitted by Terri Mellow, School of Public Health