Leader in virology, pathology given world veterinary award

Murphy wins second annual Penn Vet World Leadership Award
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old
Dr. Murphy
Dr. Frederick A. Murphy

Dr. Frederick A. Murphy has led research on deadly viruses, including Marburg and Ebola.

As director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases, he was the first veterinarian to hold such a high-ranking position in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He estimates he has authored and co-authored about 450 articles, chapters, and books during his career.

Dr. Murphy is the second winner of the Penn Vet World Leadership Award, a prize that comes with $100,000 in unrestricted funding. The award is underwritten by the Vernon and Shirley Hill Foundation.

Dr. Bernard Vallat, director general of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), won the inaugural award in 2008. The award was presented to Dr. Murphy April 20 on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia.

Two veterinary students also receive $100,000 each through the annual Penn Vet Inspiration Award competition, which is also funded by the Hill Foundation.

Dr. Alan Kelly, dean emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, said the award is meant to celebrate distinguished leaders in veterinary medicine for their contributions to the profession and society. He hopes it will become, for veterinary medicine, the equivalent of a Nobel Prize.

Dr. Kelly praised Dr. Murphy for his leadership at the CDC, which he said opened new paths for other veterinarians and helped gain public recognition for veterinary medicine's contributions.

Dr. Murphy, the James W. McLaughlin professor-in-residence at the University of Texas Medical Branch's Department of Pathology, described his role at the CDC as "a great opportunity to show how the veterinary profession is tightly linked with the other health professions, especially in the world of prevention and control of infectious diseases."

He said he was grateful to Vernon and Shirley Hill and the University of Pennsylvania. The award selection committee included members from Australia, France, Israel, Scotland, and the United States.

"When Dean Kelly called me, I was, I don't know what the right word is—it's beyond flabbergasted," Dr. Murphy told JAVMA. "I probably went right into shock."

Dr. Murphy considers himself very lucky in the course of his career.

He was drafted into the Army Veterinary Corps the day after graduating from Cornell's veterinary college in 1959. He was stationed at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, where he was responsible for rabies diagnosis on military bases in five states at a time when human exposure to rabies was much more common.

"I learned a lot of virology there and also had a lot of responsibility," Dr. Murphy said.

As a young lieutenant, Dr. Murphy met Irene May Warwas, the nursing student who would become his wife.

"Family life is the foundation of professional life," Dr. Murphy said.

After leaving the Army in 1961 and spending a month trying to figure out what to do with his life, Dr. Murphy, his wife, and their infant son moved to California, where he pursued a doctorate in comparative pathology at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. He was writing his thesis when he received a call from Telford Work, M.D., who was then head of the virology department at the CDC.

Dr. Murphy was hired as the chief of the Viral Pathology Branch, which he had to build from scratch. He said scientists and medical professionals in the branch were united by the motive of trying to prevent and control disease.

"It wasn't just to study diseases," Dr. Murphy said. "It was to do something about them."

Not long after he arrived, a viral outbreak in 1967 caused seven deaths and 23 severe illnesses in Germany and Yugoslavia. German virologists made the primary discovery of the filovirus that would become known as Marburg.

Dr. Murphy in the lab
Dr. Murphy works on inactivated fixed tissues prepared for electron microscopy following the discovery of Ebola virus in 1976.

Dr. Murphy was one of three CDC scientists who studied the virus in a temporary containment laboratory set up within an 18-wheeler trailer in the parking lot behind the CDC virology building in Atlanta. The biocontainment in the trailer was not to today's standards for handling Marburg virus, but only three experienced virologists—Dr. Robert Kissling, Roslyn Robinson, PhD, and Dr. Murphy—were allowed inside.

"We did lots of basic virus characterization work, complementing the work of the German virologists," Dr. Murphy said.

The group developed reagents for future diagnostics and published two papers.

His experience with Marburg prepared him for his work in 1976, when people began dying of a strange disease in what was then Zaire (now, the Congo). The filovirus isolated from patients would become known as Ebola.

"I think my veterinary training was key to how to be careful," Dr. Murphy said.

Dr. Murphy described preparation for performing surgery as the reverse of gowning, gloving, and masking for working with dangerous pathogens.

"Instead of having to maintain sterility and a sterile operating area on the way in, you have to be very careful on the way out," Dr. Murphy said.

Though he has spent half his career as an administrator, Dr. Murphy said his contributions toward infectious disease sciences and toward mentoring the next generation give him the most satisfaction.

"These younger people are so bright and able that I often wonder what ever allowed me into this wonderful profession," Dr. Murphy said. "I can only think that it has been incredibly good luck."

Dr. Murphy plans to donate part of the $100,000 prize to support efforts for recovery from Hurricane Ike and part toward his project on the history of veterinary and medical virology. He said the two fields of virology are very closely connected, and the concept of "one medicine" was understood from the day the first virus of vertebrates—foot-and-mouth disease—was discovered.