Gertrude S. Henle, 94, leading Penn virologist

Posted: September 08, 2006

Gertrude Szpingier Henle, 94, a virologist who, with her husband, conducted the first research on the Epstein-Barr virus linking it to infectious mononucleosis and two cancers, died last Friday of respiratory failure at the Dunwoody retirement center in Newtown Square.

Born in Mannheim, Germany, in 1912, Gertrude Szpingier earned a medical degree in 1936 from the University of Heidelberg. She met Werner Henle at Heidelberg and they became engaged.

Under persecution by the Nazis because of his Jewish ancestry, he immigrated to the United States in 1936 to teach at the University of Pennsylvania. She immigrated in 1937. The couple married the day after she arrived in America.

Dr. Henle joined her husband as a faculty member in Penn's microbiology department. They became associate professors of virology in 1941. They also began research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia the same year.

The National Library of Medicine called the Henles "a prodigious force in virology, immunology and viral oncology during the second half of the 20th century."

The Henles are best known for their research on the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) that proved it was the cause of infectious mononucleosis. The Henles discovered the close association of EBV and Burkitt's lymphoma, a common tumor in children in Africa, and nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a cancer of the post-nasal space common in adults in southern China and Africa. This relationship between EBV and cancer proved certain viruses could transform healthy cells into malignant ones.

The Henles first received acclaim for their work on infectious viruses. In 1943, they proved the effectiveness of an influenza vaccine. They also developed a test for diagnosing mumps and an evaluation of a vaccine for mumps.

In cooperation with Joseph Stokes Jr., the Henles showed how gamma globulin could hinder the development of infectious hepatitis.

In addition to their contributions to disease prevention, the Henles' research on viral infections laid the groundwork for the discovery of interferon.

"She was one of the greatest mentors I ever had," said Jay Levy, one of three co-discoverers of HIV who studied under the Henles. Levy is now professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

"He, without her, would be nobody," said Ursula Koldovsky, former professor of surgical research at Penn. "And, she, without him, would be nobody."

The Henles retired from the Penn faculty in 1982 but continued research at Children's Hospital until 1987.

In 1979, Dr. Henle became one of the few women elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Her husband had been elected in 1975.

As a research team, they shared many awards: the E. Mead Johnson Award for research in pediatrics, 1950; the Smith, Kline & French Award for excellence in research, 1971; the Robert Koch-Medaille (a German honor), 1971; the Founders in Cancer immunology award of the Cancer Research Institute, 1975; the Virus Cancer Program award of the National Cancer Institute, 1975; and the scientific award of the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Cancer Society, 1977.

The couple moved from Bala Cynwyd to Dunwoody in the early 1980s.

Dr. Henle has no survivors. Her husband died in 1987.

Services are pending.

Contact staff writer Gayle Ronan Sims at 215-854-4185 or gsims@phillynews.com.

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