Gabriele Zu Rhein

BMJ 2016; 353 doi: (Published 11 April 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;353:i2026
  1. Ned Stafford
  1. Hamburg
  1. ns{at}

Neuropathologist who had a key role in discovering that progressive multifocal leucoencephalopathy (PML) is caused by a virus

Reproduced with permission from the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology

In 1964, at a prestigious symposium in New York City, Gabriele Zu Rhein presented evidence that she believed proved that progressive multifocal leucoencephalopathy (PML) was caused by a virus. Distinguished attendees at the symposium—which was sponsored by the Association for Research in Nervous and Mental Diseases—included Albert Sabin, developer of the oral polio vaccine.

Zu Rhein, at the time 44 years old and on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, was nervous as she spoke. She was a self described “late bloomer,” who was born and had studied medicine in Germany, and the presentation was her first at a major scientific conference. Decades later she described the event as her “coming out party.” The party, however, turned into a debacle. She failed to convince any members of the expert evaluation panel—including Sabin—that PML was caused by a virus.

Within seconds of concluding her presentation, Zu Rhein later recalled, “Dr Sabin took over and tore into us with vigour.” Sabin declared to the assembled medical researchers, “This is deplorable: everybody thinks everything is a virus.”1 “I remember wishing that a helicopter would come and lift me out of there,” Zu Rhein said. Later that day, a supporter of Zu Rhein’s confided to her that Sabin had told him privately with disdain, “She thinks there are warts in the brain!”1

Luckily for Zu Rhein, …

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