Skip to main content

Wilbur A. Sawyer Papers

Identifier: MS C 69


Sawyer is best known for his role in developing a vaccine for yellow fever and working to eradicate the disease as a public health threat whle working for the Rockefeller Foundation's West Africa Yellow Fever Commission.


  • 1879-1995


4.2 Linear Feet (14 boxes)


Physical Location

Materials stored onsite. History of Medicine Division. National Library of Medicine

Language of Materials

Collection materials primarily in English


Collection is not restricted. Contact the Reference Staff for information regarding access.

Copyright and Re-use Information

Donor's copyrights were transferred to the public domain. Archival collections often contain mixed copyrights; while NLM is the owner of the physical items, permission to examine collection materials is not an authorization to publish. These materials are made available for use in research, teaching, and private study. It is the user's responsibility to research and understand any applicable copyright and re-publication rights not allowed by fair use. NLM does not grant permissions to publish.

Privacy Information

Archives and manuscript collections may contain materials with sensitive or confidential information that is protected under federal or state right to privacy laws and regulations. Researchers are advised that the disclosure of certain information pertaining to identifiable living individuals represented in any collection without the consent of those individuals may have legal ramifications for which the National Library of Medicine assumes no responsibility.

Biographical Note

Wilbur Augustus Sawyer (1879-1951) was born in Appleton, WI. His family moved first to Oshkosh, and later to Stockton, CA in 1888. He first attended the University of California at Berkeley, but soon transferred to Harvard where he received his bachelor's degree in 1902 and his medical degree in 1906. In 1911 he married Margaret Henderson and they had four children.

After his internship at Boston General Hospital, Sawyer started his medical career as a medical examiner at the University of California. In 1914 he also began teaching hygiene and preventive medicine at the university's medical school. He also worked for the California state board of health between 1910-1915 -- first as director of its hygienic laboratory, then as secretary and executive officer of the board. It was during this part of his medical career that Sawyer headed a team of public health physicians to defeat an outbreak of typhoid fever in Hamford, CA.

Sawyer joined the Army Medical Corps during World War I where he served in the surgeon-general's office and the Inter-Departmental Social Hygiene Board. While simultaneously serving as head of the American Social Hygiene Association, his primary work during this time was in preventing the spread of venereal disease among servicemen stationed in the U.S. In 1919 Sawyer cemented his career track as a public health researcher and administrator by moving to a position with the Rockefeller Foundation's International Health Board (IHB). His first assignment was overseeing a campaign against the spread of hookworm disease in Australia, a project that occupied the next five years of his life. His fourth child, Wilbur Henderson Sawyer, was born there. Sawyer returned to New York in 1929 as director of IHB's Public Health Laboratory Service, which provided lab support for other Foundation public health activities taking place around the world.

Sawyer is best known for his role in developing a vaccine for yellow fever and working to eradicate the disease as a public health threat--he himself contracted a mild case. In 1926 he joined the Rockefeller Foundation's West Africa Yellow Fever Commission. Three of its most important discoveries were that the disease is viral, that rhesus monkeys could contract the disease and therefore be used for laboratory testing, and that the African and South American strains are epidemiologically the same. The IHB was renamed the International Health Division (IHD) and Sawyer became its associate director in 1928; that same year he was also appointed director of its Yellow Fever Laboratory. Sawyer, Wray D.M. Lloyd and Stuart F. Kitchen produced a vaccine by combining an attenuated virus, developed in mice by IHD researcher Max Theiler, with human immune serum. However, the serum was so scarce that its limited production resulted in only enough vaccine to inoculate researchers. In a broader application of his research, Sawyer modified Theiler's testing mechanism to determine an individual's yellow fever immunity, leading to a program that mapped the disease's global distribution.

He became IHD's director in 1935 and continued the laboratory's yellow fever work, resulting in Theiler's development of 17D in 1937. 17D was a strain of yellow fever that thrived on nervous system tissue that could be used without modification as a vaccine, unlike Sawyer's serum vaccine. 17D contained enough virulent to induce human immunity yet was gentle enough to prevent contracting the disease. The foundation provided free vaccine to American troops during World War II. Sawyer opted to use a combination of 17D and human serum to help prevent encephalitis despite Theiler's insistence that his vaccine could be produced without causing encephalitis. However reports emanated from Brazil that showed people immunized using this combination often developed hepatitis. Eighty-four American soldiers died after contracting hepatitis from the vaccine, whereafter Sawyer received condemning criticism for not only his vaccine choice, but for making his decision without due consultation. The controversy damaged an otherwise brilliant career and many believe prevented his sharing Theiler's 1951 Nobel Prize for developing the yellow fever vaccine.

Sawyer did have other successes during the war, specifically as supervisor of several military and civilian commissions related to the control of tropical disease such as the International Sanitary Convention and the Board to Investigate the Spread and Control of Influenza in the Army. He also organized and directed the Rockefeller Foundation Health Commission to prevent a major European typhus epidemic. Immediately after the American occupation of Naples, Italy in 1943, he organized a team to delouse the entire population via the first widespread application of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). This effort had an even larger impact in that by war's end, virtually all refugees coming into Allied-occupied areas were deloused with DDT, preventing typhus from becoming a major health threat.

Sawyer retired from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1944 and joined the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration as its director of health. Again using DDT, he organized a program to rid Sardinia of its mosquito population by spraying the entire island, thus ridding it of malaria. He fully retired in 1947 and returned again to live in Berkeley, CA.

Sawyer traveled to the world's most remote areas in Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and South America during the 1920s and 1930s working in the field to develop relationships and projects with local public health officials and governments. With colleagues such as Fred Soper, the IHD helped spread the science of public health to underdeveloped populations and cultures. His international reputation garnered him many awards and honors. He was president of several tropical medicine societies, including the American Academy of Tropical Medicine. He served as chairman of the U.S. Public Health Service's national advisory health council in 1940 and was Secretary General of the 1948 International Congress of Tropical Medicine and Malaria. He was awarded knighthood in Norway's Order of St. Olaf in 1926, the League of Nations' Leon Bernard Prize in 1939, grand officialdom in Cuba's Order of Carlos Finlay in 1940, and the American Foundation of Tropical Medicine's Richard B. Strong Medal in 1949.

Collection Summary

Correspondence, diaries, photographs, financial records, and ephemera (1879-1995; 4.2 linear feet) document the professional life of Wilbur A. Sawyer and primarily his yellow fever research for the Rockefeller Foundation's International Health Board and International Health Division. Much of Sawyer's professional work consisted of traveling abroad for the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) and as part of its official reporting mechanism, field workers kept daily diaries of their travels for progress reports noting contacts, summaries of meetings, topics discussed, and general opinions and thoughts. The original donation by RF colleague Fred Soper consisted of the complete collection of Sawyer's diaries, including those related to his RF fieldwork. Roughly between 1925 and 1937, Sawyer traveled to some of the most remote regions of the world where few Westerners had ever been--places such as Australia, Java, Ceylon, India, South Africa, French Equatorial Africa, Belgian Congo, Palestine, Egypt, Brazil, Ecuador, and Panama. Sawyer's public health work establishing yellow fever laboratories, eliminating hookworm disease, constructing drainage canals to eradicate malaria, providing sewers and systems to provide for good sanitation and fresh water, and erecting the infrastructure needed to protect native populations against typhus is documented in these diaries. There are no materials regarding Sawyer's laboratory or administrative work at the Yellow Fever Lab or other RF duties. Researchers should contact the RF Center Archives for these materials.

Moreover, Sawyer was an avid photographer. Series 5: Photographs and Motion Pictures contain a vast image collection of the places and people he encountered and activities in which he engaged. This series is perhaps the most intellectually significant portion of the collection. The photograph albums contain a mixture of personal and professional activities showing Sawyer, his family, professional colleagues, and local people and are chronologically arranged for the most part. Images of personal travel as well as professional field activities are intermixed. Each photograph bears detailed identifying notes written by Sawyer with places, dates, and people named. Two of the earliest albums date from 1920-1923 and document Sawyer's time in Australia where he organized a campaign to eliminate the spread of hookworm disease. This group of photographs also documents his travels to Java, Ceylon, India, and other Pacific, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries. Many of the photographs can be described as richly panoramic, showing the broader landscapes and towns he visited with colleagues and their fieldwork, rather than clinical pictures of laboratories. There are no pictures, and few other materials, which document Sawyer's work with the U.S. military during World War II. His work during the 1930s developing a vaccine for yellow fever took place primarily in the western African countries collectively referred to as the Gold Coast. The four films made by Sawyer as part of the West African Yellow Fever Commission are a rare documentary source. These films show Sawyer in the laboratory and in the field.

Series 2: Correspondence contains both personal and professional correspondence subseries. Nearly all of the personal correspondence contains letters to Sawyer's wife Margaret while he was traveling abroad for the RF between 1920-1937. While they do not usually contain details of his clinical work, they do provide detailed evidence of the unique daily life public health fieldworkers experienced. Much of the topics include his mundane travel arrangements and his general observations of places and people, but taken as a whole these letters provide an almost daily account of the work documented in the photographs found in Series 5. There is also a large collection of condolence letters written to Margaret Sawyer after his death in 1951. The bulk of the professional correspondence subseries contains mainly routine letters of thanks between colleagues, as well as Sawyer's letters of resignation from his many professional groups as he retired from professional life. The bulk of these letters date between 1948-1951.

Sawyer's personal life is reflected in both the correspondence and photograph series. He often comments on family matters in his personal letters to his wife. There are also many pictures of the extended Sawyer family, including the family of Wallace Carroll to whom his daughter Peg was married. Many portraits of Sawyer, his wife, children and grandchildren can be found throughout the albums. Family gatherings in California, Michigan and North Carolina are documented, as well as the Sawyer home in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. There are some later pictures taken by Sawyer from his house in Berkeley, CA. The Sawyers were also active vacationers and the collection contains pictures of the family camping and horseback riding in Yosemite National Park in California, hiking in Glacier National Park in Montana, and climbing Mt. Shasta. There are also many pictures of family vacations when the family lived in Australia or when Sawyer visited Europe, Africa, Asia, or the many other countries in which he lived while working. Finally, the Personal and Biographical Series contains an interesting "friendship calendar" presented to Sawyer at his RF retirement. Friends and colleagues, many famous scientists in their own right, wrote individual sentiments, poems, quotes, and caricatures for each day of the year, relating their personal reminiscences of their relationship. Many of the cartoons are quite remarkable.


Sawyer is best known for his role in developing a vaccine for yellow fever and working to eradicate the disease as a public health threat whle working for the Rockefeller Foundation's West Africa Yellow Fever Commission.

Physical Location

Materials stored onsite. History of Medicine Division. National Library of Medicine


Gift of Fred Soper and Margaret Carroll, 1966, 2002, and 2004. Acc. #15; 2002-79; 2006-006.

Alternate Forms Available

Portions of the Collection have been digitized and are available at:


Processed by
John P. Rees; Michele Tourney
Processing Completed
March 2003
Additional Processing
April 2005
Encoded by
John P. Rees

Processing Information

Photograph scrapbooks disassembled by conservation staff, re-sleeved and foldered. Photocopies of original pages made prior to disassembly to retain original context and layout.

Finding Aid to the Wilbur A. Sawyer Papers, 1879-1995
Unverified Partial Draft
John P. Rees; Michele Tourney
March 2003; April 2005
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note
Finding aid is written in English
Edition statement

Collecting Area Details

Part of the Archives and Modern Manuscripts Collection Collecting Area

8600 Rockville Pike
Bldg 38/1E-21, MSC 3819
Bethesda MD 20894 US
1-888-FINDNLM (1-888-346-3656)