Doc hasn't stopped helping

Dr. Sam Katz has long enjoyed an international profile for developing the measles vaccine, helping to save millions of children's lives since its approval in 1963.

But Duke pediatrician Katz, 81, also cuts a familiar figure around Carrboro, where he is seen several times a week riding his bike from his home outside town.

Katz's spheres of influence range from the global to the local, colleagues and admirers said Wednesday as he received a lifetime legacy award. The honor came from the nonprofit advocacy group Action for Children North Carolina.

"I was in India last fall as part of a health delegation and I spoke with an internationally known vaccine scientist," state health director Dr. Leah Devlin said before an awards dinner at Brier Creek Country Club.

"I said, 'I bring greetings from Dr. Sam Katz,' and the man was thrilled because he had served on an international vaccine panel with Dr. Katz.

"And Dr. Katz is also a great leader on vaccination issues in North Carolina."

A plainspoken native of New Hampshire, Katz was educated at Dartmouth and Harvard. Katz once headed the American Pediatric Society. He has won handfuls of medical and scientific awards. He is a jazz drummer, an opera lover and an Anglophile who has made North Carolina his home for the past 40 years. Katz once was a co-chairman of a commission on children's health with another towering figure, former UNC-Chapel Hill basketball coach Dean Smith.

And Katz serves on bodies that help guide vaccine policy all over the world.

"Remarkably, Sam's influence shows no sign of waning," said Dr. Joseph W. St. Geme III, who as head of pediatrics at Duke holds the position Katz occupied for 22 years.

Dr. David Tayloe Jr., president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics and past president of the state pediatrics society, kidded Katz at the awards dinner about losing his prescription sunglasses when Tayloe's family took him body-surfing.

"Sam did not understand that bodysurfing is a contact sport," Tayloe said. "But Sam is the man as far as vaccines are concerned, everywhere."

Greatest gratification

During an interview in his Duke office, Katz recounted the great days of developing the measles vaccine. He and other researchers tested it on themselves before starting any formal trials.

"We injected it in one another," he recalled. "It was a test for safety and toxicity."

The researchers proceeded to test the vaccine on monkeys and then, after much deliberation, on children in a school near Boston, Katz said.

"They developed antibodies and, lo and behold, we were on our way," he said.

Katz stresses that the vaccine was developed by a team at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Boston that included Nobel laureate Dr. John Enders.

Since then, worldwide measles deaths among children have gone from as many as 6 million annually to about 200,000. That's still too many, Katz said, but the decline represents clear progress.

"The greatest gratification I have had is to see that you can save children's lives around the world," he said.

Free from day-to-day administrative duties at Duke, Katz does what associates call a dizzying amount of travel, often accompanying his wife, Dr. Catherine Wilfert, on her overseas excursions as an AIDS researcher.

Katz remains outspoken about developments in medicine and health-care policy.

"The business and the administration has gotten so complicated and involved -- much of this due to the lack of a health insurance system that takes care of everyone," Katz said.

Challenges persist

Weekday callers to Katz's home are out of luck; he remains a daily presence at Duke Children's Hospital, greeting employees at all levels by first name.

"He's unfailingly brisk, energetic and imperturbable," said R. Sanders Williams, senior vice chancellor for academic affairs at Duke's medical school.

"Sam in his beautiful way lets those accomplishments speak for themselves. When he encounters students and faculty, he treats them as peers."

In accepting the award, Katz spoke both of past accomplishments and of challenges that remain, including North Carolina's low national rankings in infant mortality and childhood obesity.

"We don't have measles anymore, but obesity is going to do our children in," he said.