Purnell W. Choppin, M.D. (1929-2021)
Choppin greatly advanced scientific understanding of how viruses penetrate cells and hijack their internal machinery—knowledge essential to developing effective vaccines and antiviral therapies. From the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, Choppin and his colleagues studied how viral particles, particularly those responsible for influenza and measles, attach to cells, inject them with viral proteins and RNA, and turn them into factories for manufacturing additional virus particles. In addition to explaining how viruses cause illness, his investigations shed light on other medically important topics, such as tumor formation, and illuminated fundamental aspects of cell biology and gene function. Choppin and his team also helped explain how persistent viral infections can lead to chronic neurological disease—and they used their knowledge of viral proteins to develop antiviral agents that successfully inhibited infection by influenza viruses.
Choppin came to Rockefeller in 1957 as a postdoctoral fellow and joined the faculty in 1959, later becoming the Leon Hess Professor of Virology and head of the Laboratory of Virology. He also served as vice president for academic programs and dean of graduate studies, and senior physician to The Rockefeller University Hospital. Outside of his university responsibilities, Choppin helped organize the American Society for Virology. In 1985, Choppin left Rockefeller to become vice president and chief scientific officer of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the largest private nonprofit funder of biomedical research in the country. In 1987, he became HHMI’s president, a post from which he was a powerful advocate for biomedical research in the U.S. and the world until his retirement in 1999.
Choppin is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among his many honors, he has received the Howard Taylor Ricketts Award from the University of Chicago, the Selman A. Waksman Award for Excellence in Microbiology from the National Academy of Sciences, the Dean’s Medal from Harvard Medical School, the Johns Hopkins University Heritage Award, and several honorary degrees from universities in the U.S. and abroad.
Read more about Choppin’s life and career here.