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Dr. J. Thomas August, Johns Hopkins scientist who worked to tame viruses, dies

Dr. J. Thomas August, Johns Hopkins scientist who worked to tame viruses, dies
Dr. J. Thomas August, who came to Baltimore in 1976 as the Hopkins director of the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, worked to find a vaccine for Zika, the mosquito-borne flavivirus. (Handout)

Dr. J. Thomas August, who did pioneering research in immunology and vaccine development at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, died Feb. 11 of metastatic cancer at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson. The former Poplar Hill resident was 91.

In his lengthy career, Dr. August had worked to find a vaccine for Zika, the mosquito-borne flavivirus.

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Born in Whittier, Calif., he was the youngest of six children of John and Elizabeth August. His father, John August, came from western Ukraine and farmed in California. His mother was from Slovakia.

He met his future wife, Jean Nordstrom, at Whittier High School. They corresponded during his service in the Army in Alaska at the end of World War II and dated while they attended Stanford University as students.

“My father was warm and outgoing,” said his daughter, Christina E. August Hecht of Berkeley, Calif. “He had a great bedside manner and was a storyteller. Dad made friends with everyone, everywhere. Language was never a barrier to him. He could communicate with anyone.”

Dr. August was a 1954 graduate of Stanford’s School of Medicine. According to a Hopkins biography, he later trained in medicine at the Royal Infirmary, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and was a resident at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and a research fellow in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

He taught at Stanford and New York University before he was appointed the Ullmann Professor of Molecular Biology, chair of the Department of Molecular Biology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

Dr. August came to Baltimore in 1976 as the Hopkins director of the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. Colleagues said that under his tenure, his department shifted its focus to molecular biology and virology.

He and his family first lived in Guilford on Bishop’s Road. They resided in the former home of Johns Hopkins President Milton S. Eisenhower, the younger brother of U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. They later moved to Poplar Hill Road in North Roland Park and most recently resided in the Tuscany-Canterbury community.

“It is hard to exaggerate the personal and scientific impact of Tom on our department,” said Dr. James Stivers, a Hopkins doctor and interim director of pharmacology and molecular sciences. “The example he set in terms of pursuing creative and innovative research with direct application to human health was inspiring, and his gracious demeanor and warmth will always be with us.”

Said a Hopkins School of Medicine statement: “In 1980, he discovered proteins in the membranes of tiny structures within cells, called lysosomes, which act as transport vehicles to shuttle cellular contents into and out of the cell,” “The discovery revolutionized the field of immunology. … In recent decades, Dr. August studied the development of vaccines to target viruses such as HIV, dengue, influenza and West Nile.”

He was recalled as a teacher and mentor.

“Dr. August was an amazing scientist who came up with bold and novel ways to solve important questions in immunology, cell biology and medicine. He taught scores of postdoctoral and graduate students to be independent thinkers and researchers, and in doing so, prepared them for successful careers in the sciences,” said Dr. Linda M. Arterburn, a former student who is now an official at Medifast/Jason Pharmaceuticals.

Dr. August was associated with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y. He collaborated with scientists at the California Institute of Technology, the Salk Institute, Uppsala University, Oxford University and Johns Hopkins Singapore, where he had been director of the Division of Biomedical Sciences.

He directed a vaccine research project in Recife, Brazil, with Dr. Ernesto Marques.

Dr. August was named a Hopkins University distinguished service professor in 2001.

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His colleagues said he held eight patents on vaccine-related technology. He published numerous scientific articles.

In 2006 Dr. August founded Immunomic Therapeutics Inc. with Dr. William Hearl.

“In 2015, ITI entered into an exclusive worldwide license agreement with Astellas Pharma Inc. of Japan with respect to ITI's LAMP technology for an upfront payment of $300 million,” a statement from Hopkins said. “This is Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions' largest technology transfer to date.”

Dr. August was an accomplished gardener who spent hours cultivating plants and shrubs — and tending a fishpond — at his Poplar Hill Road home. He also spent time at Martha’s Vineyard, where he had a second home.

Plans for a memorial service at the Hopkins School of Medicine are not complete.

Survivors include his wife of 67 years, Jean Nordstrom, a Cathedral of the Incarnation altar guild member and volunteer tutor; a daughter, Christina E. August Hecht of Berkeley, Calif.; two sons, Paul Nordstrom August of Montreal, and Stephen Thomas “Tom” August of Baltimore; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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