Emil Gotschlich: a memoir by Professor Rino Rappuoli published on PNAS

Professor emeritus at Rockfeller University, Emil Claus Gotschlich’s role was crucial in developing the first vaccine against meningitis in 1970. Professor Rino Rappuoli, scientific director of the Fondazione Biotecnopolo di Siena, painted for the scientific journal PNAS, a professional and human portrait of Professor Gotschlich, who died on the 14th of February 2023. 

The memoir follows the life of Emil Gotschlich, from the origins of his family, which boasts a long tradition in medicine, to his studies at the Collegio Papio di Ascona, run by the priests of the Benedictine order, where Gotschlich learned the Italian language and received an Italian education. He then moved to the United States in the 1950s, where he graduated at New York University in 1959. Shortly thereafter, he entered Maclyn McCarty’s laboratory – the famous scientist known for the discovery and demonstration that the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the carrier of genetic information -, where he studied McCarty’s scientific methods and published numerous articles. In 1966, Emil Gotschlich was drafted into the Army and served as a captain in the Medical Corps at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Bethesda, Maryland, which at the time was battling the problem of meningococcal meningitis in American troops engaged in the Vietnam war.

The experience in the army helped Professor Gotschlich to develop vaccines against meningococcus A and C, which demonstrated their effectiveness on military recruits. His discovery was later transferred to the Merieux Institute, France, which produced more than 80 million doses of meningococcus AC polysaccharide vaccine that were used in Brazil to halt the ongoing meningococcal epidemic, and also in several African regions.

Gotschlich’s discovery paved the way for the development of many other bacterial capsular polysaccharide vaccines, such as those developed by John Robbins, who, besides becoming one of his closest friends, collaborated with Emil Gotschlich to develop vaccines against the ACW and Y serogroups of meningococcus, 20 serotypes of pneumococcus, H. influenzae, and S. typhi. Thanks to his extraordinary scientific career, Gotschlich revolutionized the vaccinology field for meningococcus. 

In his memoir, Professor Rino Rappuoli provides his personal narrative of his friendship with Gotschlich, whom he defines as one of the pioneers in the vaccines field. “When I joined Emil’s lab at Rockefeller in the winter of 1979, I was not fully aware of how famous he was at that time”, Rappuoli writes. “He had just received the Lasker award for devising innovative chemical techniques that permitted the development of an effective meningococcal vaccine, and his lab was busy running the serology of the vaccine trials. My project was to develop a vaccine for gonococcus, a bacterium related to meningococcus, which causes a sexually transmitted disease”.

Professor Rappuoli remembers, above all, the scientific and human friendship that always linked him to Emil Gotschlich and that never stopped, not even after he left his laboratory at Rockfeller University. Their friendship was always enriched by tips and words of encouragement that, as Rappuoli remembers, “somehow positively influenced the course of our research”.

Click here to read the memoir published on PNAS: Emil Gotschlich: Physician–scientist and vaccine pioneer (1935–2023)

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