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Dr. Robert M. Chanock, Prominent Virologist, Dies at 86

Dr. Robert M. Chanock, a pediatrician whose discoveries of viruses led to far-reaching improvements in preventing and treating common respiratory illnesses, particularly among children, died Friday in Sykesville, Md. He was 86.

His death, at an assisted living facility, was caused by complications of Alzheimer’s disease, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said. He had worked at the institute, in Bethesda, Md., for 53 years and had lived in Bethesda.

“Dr. Chanock was one of the top 20 virologists in history and covered a broad range of infectious diseases with an amazing productivity,” Dr. Erling C. J. Norrby, a virologist and former secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said in an interview on Tuesday.

Dr. Chanock first gained wide attention in 1957 with the discovery of the human respiratory syncytial virus, one of the most common causes of illness in the world. It can cause bronchiolitis, an infection of the small airways in the lungs, especially among infants and young children.

As the head of research teams, he subsequently discovered four other infectious agents, called para-influenza viruses, which include the most important cause of severe croup in infants.

In 1962, a team led by Dr. Chanock showed that a bacterium, Mycoplasma pneumoniae, is a cause of atypical pneumonia, commonly known as walking pneumonia, in which even extensive lung infection may nonetheless not limit mobility. Additional studies showed that antibiotics can cure Mycoplasma infections.

In 1968, Dr. Chanock became chief of the national institute’s laboratory of infectious diseases, where his colleagues and trainees discovered still other viruses, including some that cause common colds.

In 1972, a colleague, Dr. Albert Z. Kapikian, used a technique known as immune electron microscopy to discover what caused outbreaks of a condition called explosive diarrhea, often occurring on cruise ships. The virus, then called the Norwalk agent and now known as a norovirus, each year affects an estimated 23 million Americans and causes about 220,000 deaths in developing countries.

Dr. Chanock also led teams of epidemiologists in deciphering how the viruses were transmitted and determining whom they most affected. And he pursued, unsuccessfully, the development of vaccines against respiratory syncytial virus and the para-influenza viruses.

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