January 5, 2023

Infectious disease expert Edwards ends storied career

Vanderbilt’s Kathryn Edwards, MD, internationally recognized for her countless contributions to vaccine evaluation and implementation, public health advocacy, and the mentorship and training of new generations of experts in infectious disease over the past four decades, retired on Dec. 31, 2022.

Kathryn Edwards, MD, spoke at a recent event celebrating her career.
Kathryn Edwards, MD, spoke at a recent event celebrating her career. (photo by Donn Jones)

by Nancy Humphrey

Kathryn Edwards, MD, an internationally recognized Vanderbilt University Medical Center physician who has made countless contributions to vaccine evaluation and implementation, public health advocacy, and the mentorship and training of new generations of experts in infectious disease over the past four decades, retired on Dec. 31, 2022.

A native of Williamsburg, Iowa, Edwards came to VUMC 42 years ago after completing medical school at the University of Iowa School of Medicine, residency training and fellowship at Northwestern University in Chicago and postdoctoral training in Immunology at Rush Medical School in Chicago.

Edwards, who holds the Sarah H. Sell and Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair in Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and is professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Infectious Diseases, for many years was the principal investigator for a Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She has received continuous support for her clinical research into vaccines from the NIH and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for decades.

During her career, she has tested vaccines for H1N1 flu, H5 avian flu, pertussis, pneumococcus, smallpox, anthrax and others.

“There are so many things that have changed, both in the landscape of infectious disease and in health care, since I came here. But the biggest change is that vaccines have eliminated so many of those infections that were so problematic,” Edwards said.

“I’m very proud of participating in the evaluation, licensure, use and promotion of vaccines,” she said. “It’s a little painful for me to see hesitancy about vaccines now. I tell people that it’s a little like the Maytag repairman. We have such a good product that people kind of forget about what diseases there were. When I was growing up, we had polio, we saw it, and there was no question we would all get our polio vaccine. But people now don’t know about meningitis. They don’t know measles, so sometimes they question why a vaccine is needed.”

Edwards’ initial studies focused on Haemophilus influenza Type b (Hib) vaccines, where she compared the safety and immunogenicity of four different Hib vaccines in large community pediatric practices and made important contributions to the licensing and universal recommendations for the Hib vaccine. Her work, and that of others, led to the elimination of serious disease with this pathogen.

After the licensure of the Hib vaccine, she turned her attention to the pertussis problem, and through her work convinced global vaccine manufacturers and the NIH to fund a head-to-head study of 13 available acellular vaccines and to compare them to two standard whole cell pertussis vaccines.

The data demonstrated the improved safety profile of the acellular vaccines and resulted in the transition from whole-cell pertussis vaccines to acellular vaccines in most of the developed countries in the world. She has continued her work over the years, helping to inform understanding of pertussis immunity and how pertussis diseases continue despite widespread vaccination.

Edwards has also conducted research on vaccines for respiratory virus infections and was a founding investigator of the CDC-funded New Vaccine Surveillance Network, assessing the impact of vaccines on respiratory and diarrheal diseases in the United States.

Edwards with Steven Webber, MBChB, MRCP, at the event.
Edwards with Steven Webber, MBChB, MRCP, at the event. (photo by Donn Jones)

Edwards was also awarded a CDC contract in 2011 to conduct comprehensive pneumonia surveillance studies in over 2,000 adults and children admitted to Vanderbilt adult and pediatric hospitals and at one other community hospital in Nashville. This generated a large body of published work outlining the etiology and incidence of pneumonia in children and adults.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, she served on Data Safety and Monitoring committees to monitor the efficacy and safety of the new vaccines and to work with the CDC to assist vaccine providers in questions that arise regarding adverse events after the vaccination.

She served on the Infectious Diseases Society of America’s Treatment Guidelines Committee to provide guidance on the therapy of patients with COVID-19 diseases. She was also a frequent source for print and broadcast media to explain the complexities of vaccines and public health responses to COVID-19.

Steven Webber, MBChB, MRCP, James C. Overall Professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics, said Edwards has made seminal and lasting scientific contributions to her field.

“She has served public health, particularly of children, through her research, her engagement with national and world organizations and her focus on international clinical studies. Her work has brought national and international recognition to Vanderbilt.

“She has also been the consummate physician and mentor, teaching the fundamentals of clinical research with high expectations, while ensuring her mentees establish a niche for themselves and supporting their long-term career development. She has been selfless with her time and ferocious in her protection of her trainees. She will be missed,” Webber said.

Edwards has published more than 650 research publications, many with her trainees and mentees. She has served on several CDC, NIH, World Health Organization and IDSA committees.

In 2006, she received the IDSA Mentor Award for her exceptional mentoring and in 2014 received the Maureen Andrews Mentoring Award from the Society for Pediatric Research. In 2008 she was elected to the National Academy of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. In 2016 she was awarded the Charles Mérieux Vaccinology Award from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

In 2018 she was awarded the Maxwell Finland award for Scientific Accomplishments by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, and in 2019 she received the Frank Morriss Jr. Leadership Award in Pediatrics. In 2020, Edwards received the John Howland Award from the American Pediatric Society and was inducted into the Tennessee Health Care Hall of Fame.

Despite being one of the nation’s eminent vaccine researchers, Edwards never relinquished her ties to patient care and teaching. Up until the COVID-19 pandemic, she still saw patients on a regular basis, and she has continued mentoring trainees over the years.

“I’m so proud of the people I’ve been able to mentor, of being their ‘academic parent.’ In some ways my transition is a little bit like biologic parenthood. We spend a lot of time trying to make sure our children get the wings to fly away and become their own independent people, and that’s what I hope has been the case with the people that I’ve mentored — that they’ve gotten their own wings and now they have their own programs and are carrying on traditions, but expanding in new ways and having new ideas.”

Buddy Creech, MD, MPH, director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program and Edie Carell Johnson Professor of Pediatrics, considers himself lucky to have been mentored by Edwards. He has become her close friend and trusted colleague.

“Her enduring legacy will not only be the vaccine studies she has led or the new discoveries in pediatric infectious diseases she has made; rather, her lasting influence in the field will be the vast number of people who consider her their ‘academic mother,’ providing guidance, support, encouragement and sometimes a motherly nudge when appropriate.”

In her retirement, Edwards said she is looking forward to spending more time with her nonacademic family — husband, Bill, four children and 10 grandchildren. Only one of her children lives outside Nashville and will soon be returning.

“I’m ready to retire, to spend more time with my family. I’ll also stay involved being on vaccine data safety and monitoring committees and continuing to mentor as I can. Some say there’s still some wisdom they can get from me.”