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Purnell Choppin, a researcher who laid groundwork for pandemic fight, dies at 91

A photo provided via the Choppin family shows Purnell Choppin at Rockefeller University in New York circa 1958.
A photo provided via the Choppin family shows Purnell Choppin at Rockefeller University in New York circa 1958.via Choppin family/NYT

Purnell Choppin, whose research on how viruses multiply helped lay the foundation for today’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, died July 3 at his home in Washington, D.C., one day shy of his 92nd birthday.

His daughter, Kathleen, said the cause was prostate cancer.

Mr. Choppin, who was born, raised and educated in Louisiana, arrived at The Rockefeller University in the New York City borough of Manhattan in 1957, just as a global influenza outbreak reached the city. He isolated six strains of the virus, including one from his own throat, which were used to develop antiviral agents.

He then set himself on a decadeslong mission to discover how viruses multiplied. He was among the first to show how they invade cells and turn them into factories to produce more viruses, work that was seminal in vaccine development.

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Mr. Choppin (pronounced show-PAN) focused on measles and influenza, but his research, and the methods he developed to conduct it, proved critical for later work on other viruses, including severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, the virus behind the COVID pandemic, said David Baltimore, an emeritus professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology and a winner of the 1975 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

“The issue of how viruses infect cells was very much on his mind, and the mechanisms he worked out studying influenza were central to thinking about coronaviruses,” Baltimore said. “Thanks to his work and that of so many others, when the pandemic hit, we were able to formulate questions about the virus in quite precise terms.”

Mr. Choppin was equally well known as an administrator, first at Rockefeller and then at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which hired him in 1985 as its chief medical officer. He later ran the institute for 12 years, turning it from a modest-size research organization into a global research powerhouse.

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His death elicited an outpouring of remembrances from some of the highest-profile figures in medicine, including Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“With Purnell’s passing,” he said, “we have lost one of our preeminent physician-scientists and research administrators.”

George Purnell Whittington Choppin was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 4, 1929. His father, Arthur Choppin, was a chemistry professor at Louisiana State University, and his mother, Eunice (Bolin) Choppin, was a high school teacher.

In addition to his daughter, he leaves his wife, Joan.

After he took over at the Hughes institute, Mr. Choppin liked to tell his colleagues a story about meeting their famously reclusive benefactor. In 1938, Hughes, an accomplished aviator as well as an industrialist, was stopping in Baton Rouge to refuel, and Arthur Choppin took 9-year-old Purnell and his brother, Arthur Jr., to see him. They shook hands, but, he said, his primary memory was that Hughes was “very tall.”

Mr. Choppin graduated from high school at 16 and entered LSU, where he also attended medical school. He received his doctorate in 1953 and completed his residency at Washington University in St. Louis. He served in the Air Force, in Japan, from 1954 to 1955.

He began at Rockefeller University as a postdoctoral fellow and was named a professor in 1959. He later moved into administration, and was a vice president and dean of graduate studies when the Hughes institute hired him away.

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Howard Hughes had founded the institute in 1953 and later transferred his entire holdings in the Hughes Aircraft Company to it, for tax purposes, creating an awkward arrangement in which a medical-research nonprofit owned one of the country’s largest defense contractors.

Just weeks before Mr. Choppin arrived, the institute sold the company to General Motors for $5.2 billion, immediately making it one of the country’s wealthiest philanthropies.

In 1987, the institute’s president was forced to resign after a financial scandal, and Mr. Choppin was named to replace him. Over the next decade, he built it into a leading source of funding for biomedical research, doling out about $4.5 billion to hundreds of scientists, as well as for undergraduate and high school science education.

With a calm, easygoing demeanor that disguised a fierce, visionary ambition, Mr. Choppin took an innovative approach to funding. Unlike at other institutions, which provide grants for specific projects, he focused on identifying top researchers and then showering them with money and resources. Even better, he did not ask them to move to the institute, in Chevy Chase, Maryland — they could stay where they were and let the Hughes largesse come to them.

Mr. Choppin thought that doing so was less disruptive and made for better science, but it also made for great advertising, promoting the Hughes brand throughout the research world.

It worked. In 1988, The Washington Post called the institute “the modern version of the 15th century Medici family of Florence,” adding that “instead of art, the focus is medical science.”

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Science magazine wrote that in Mr. Choppin’s hands, the presidency of the Hughes institute was “the most influential biomedical research job in the world.”

Although Mr. Choppin was sometimes criticized for making safe bets on established scientists who probably didn’t need his help, he made no apologies, and had the track record to prove the soundness of his approach: Dozens of Hughes researchers went on to become members of the National Academy of Sciences, and six won the Nobel Prize.

“We bet on people who look like they are going to be winners,” he told the Post in 1988. “You look for originality. How they pick a problem and stick to it. Their instinct for the scientific jugular.”