A life on the front lines against deadly viruses
By Faye Flam
GALVESTON, Texas — When University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston pathology professor Frederick Murphy found out he'd been chosen to receive the $100, 000 Penn Vet World Leadership Award — an honor that some call veterinary medicine's equivalent to a Nobel Prize — his first reaction was, naturally, surprise.
Well, actually it was a bit more than that.
"I don't know what the word is — it's beyond flabbergasted," Murphy said. "I probably went right into shock."
When he'd managed to collect his thoughts, the world-renowned virologist realized he was faced with a problem scientists don't normally have: What am I going to do with all that money?
It didn't take Murphy long, though — "about a nanosecond" — to come up with an answer. Inspired by the memory of his late wife Irene, a woman "very committed to charity aimed at the most needful people in our society," he decided to dedicate a portion of the prize to Hurricane Ike recovery efforts in Galveston.
"Recovery from a hurricane is a long-term matter, and the people of Galveston — especially the poorest people — are still suffering from the storm," Murphy said. "As we all know, many of their houses were substantially damaged or destroyed and many of them lost their jobs. There are people and projects that need help all over this city, and I intend to do what I can to help — a little here, a little there, wherever it will do the most good."
Murphy's decision to donate a portion of his prize money to hurricane relief came as no surprise to Dr. David Walker, chairman of UTMB's pathology department. "I've known Fred Murphy since 1973, when I joined his lab at the Centers for Disease Control, and generosity is a cornerstone of his nature," Walker said.
At the time, Murphy was chief of the CDC's Viral Pathology Branch. As one of the first veterinarians appointed to a leadership role in the CDC, he was in a perfect position to appreciate and highlight the dangers posed to human health by viruses whose normal hosts were animals. As an electron microscopist leading a CDC research group charged with identifying previously unknown deadly viruses, he was the first to glimpse the related Marburg and Ebola viruses — both of which have "jumped" to humans from animal hosts. He also helped classify, name and characterize a wide variety of other newly discovered viruses affecting both humans and animals.
Such accomplishments exemplify what the Penn Vet World Leadership Award jury called Murphy's "significant contributions to benefit society and advance the veterinary profession through his research work on viruses impacting animals and humans." At the same time, the jury pointed out, he has "provided leadership at national and international level, contributed many publications … and been active in mentoring young scholars."
The last is one of Murphy's favorite roles today at UTMB. "Spending time with graduate students is a delight," he said. "Besides their great intelligence they have a great sense of adventure — I don't think people come into this field who aren't excitable and excited about it."
It's obvious he's still excited about it himself. And to Galveston's benefit, he's also excited about helping his adopted hometown get back on its feet.
The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston
Public Affairs Office
301 University Boulevard, Suite 3.102
Galveston, Texas 77555-0144