Gilbert M. Schiff, MD, was a pioneer in vaccine research who played a major role in developing vaccines against rubella, influenza and other common childhood viral diseases.

Dr. Schiff died in Cincinnati April 25, 2012, at the age of 80.  

“Gil touched millions of people with the work that he did. He was one of the most modest, self-effacing guys you can imagine,” said long-time friend Neal Bortz in an obituary that appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Dr. Schiff was internationally known for his vaccine development, carrying on the viral vaccine production in the 1970s and ’80s that Dr. Albert Sabin – inventor of the oral polio vaccine -- started at Cincinnati Children’s in the ’50s and ’60s.

Track star pursues medicine

Dr. Schiff was a native Cincinnatian who was a track star at Walnut Hills High School. His father was Leon Schiff, MD, a professor at the UC College of Medicine who wrote a textbook on liver diseases that is still used today.  

Dr. Schiff went to Harvard on a track scholarship, looking forward to competing in the decathlon, perhaps even in the Olympics. However, when his older brother was killed in a car wreck, he came home to be with his family.

After earning his medical degree at UC in 1957, Dr. Schiff completed his internship and internal medicine training in Iowa, where he showed an interest in viral diseases. Then he entered the US Public Health Service at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta as a medical officer in the laboratory branch, 1959-1961. He served as head of the Tissue Culture Investigation Unit, Section on Virology, Perinatal Research Branch, National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness in Bethesda, Maryland, 1961-1964.

Long-time leader of Gamble Institute

Dr. Schiff returned to Cincinnati in 1964 to join the James N. Gamble Center for Infectious Diseases, then based at Christ Hospital. Schiff also served as director of the Infectious Diseases Division, Department of Medicine, UC College of Medicine, 1970-1973.  

In 1974, he became president and CEO of the Gamble Institute, which he built up to 85 full-time employees, including four MDs, seven PhDs and 35 bachelor- or master-degreed employees by 1995.

Dr. Schiff’s medical contributions include work on influenza vaccines, the approval of the drug amantadine in the 1960s for flu symptom relief, and his isolation and vaccination production against the virus causing rubella (German measles).  The vaccine he helped develop remains part of the MMR trivalent vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella.

“These studies pioneered methods that are in common use today for studying the efficacy of vaccines,” David Bernstein, MD, current director of the Gamble Program for Clinical Studies at Cincinnati Children’s, told the Enquirer.

Studied rubella, rotavirus, influenza and more

Dr. Schiff was a member of the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, 1971-1975; president of the Central Society for Clinical Research, 1983-1984; and president of the Association of Independent Research Institutes, 1991-1993.

In 1995, the Gamble Institute was moved to Cincinnati Children’s. Schiff remained its director and continued working for several more years.  He worked with Hepatitis B and C, studied the common cold, and conducted early research on rotavirus.  Dr. Schiff recruited Richard Ward, PhD, and Dr. Bernstein to Cincinnati Children’s where they completed development of Rotarix – a rotavirus vaccine now approved for use in more than 100 nations.

Schiff married his wife, Marian, in 1955. She died in 2008. Schiff is survived by two children and five grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to the UC College of Medicine, University of Cincinnati Foundation, 51 Goodman Ave., Cincinnati OH 45221-0970; Hebron Lutheran Missions Fund, 3140 Limaburg Road, Hebron, KY 41048; or Hospice of Cincinnati, 4310 Cooper Road, Cincinnati, OH 45242.