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John Sever, a champion of polio eradication, dies


John Sever, an infectious disease specialist and champion of Rotary’s polio eradication program, died on 25 April. He was 92.

A Rotary member since 1964, the Chicago, Illinois-born Sever worked for almost three decades as chief of the Infectious Diseases Branch at the National Institutes of Health. Later he served as a professor of pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, microbiology, immunology and tropical medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He published over 600 scientific papers in these fields.

On Sever's recommendation in 1979, Rotary would embark on its decades-long effort to eradicate polio globally, expanding what began as a vaccination campaign in the Philippines. Because of his expertise and advocacy, Sever served on the International PolioPlus Committee (IPPC) from its inception in 1994 and was a member and vice chair. His tireless efforts were instrumental in driving the global campaign to eradicate polio.

Watch John Sever give an oral history of Rotary’s fight against polio in an interview with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

Through his leadership, Sever, a member of the Rotary Club of Potomac, Maryland, USA, inspired countless individuals to join the ranks of Rotary members and partners. He helped forge a shared mission to immunize every child, reach every community, and leave no one behind. His guidance was influential in navigating complex challenges, overcoming barriers, and sustaining momentum in the face of adversity.

“His expertise in immunology was invaluable to both Rotary and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative," says IPPC Chair Mike McGovern. “In addition to the International PolioPlus Committee, John served on the US Polio Eradication Advocacy Task Force for many years until his passing.”

John Sever (center) who was an infectious disease specialist and member of the Rotary club of Potomac, Maryland, USA, listens to fellow participants during Rotary Day at the White House in Washington D.C., on 4 April 2013. Photo by Monika Lozinska/Rotary International

Sever’s work to end polio spanned decades and was marked by unwavering determination and resolve. His pioneering contributions paved the way for groundbreaking strategies, innovative approaches, and unprecedented collaboration, bringing us closer than ever to the ultimate goal of a polio-free world.

“He was an inspiration to all of us, and his impact on the efforts toward a polio-free world were unequaled,” says McGovern. “While we will remember and celebrate John’s great work and service, the best way to honor him is to recommit ourselves to completing the task of ending polio.”

Sever served as a district governor and a member and chair of several Rotary International and Rotary Foundation committees.

Sever was a professor emeritus of Pediatrics, Obstetrics, Gynecology, Microbiology, Immunology, and Tropical Medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Children’s National Medical Center. He taught postgraduate education in infectious diseases and served on several institutional review boards. He was past president of the Teratology Society, the Infectious Diseases Society for Obstetrics and Gynecology, the Association of Medical Laboratory Immunologists, and the Pan American Group for Rapid Viral Diagnosis.

Sever is survived by his wife, Gerane, daughters Kimberly, Beverly, and Valerie, and seven grandchildren.

To make a contribution to PolioPlus in memory of Sever, please contact us.


Dare to Dream: How Rotary became the heart and soul of polio eradication (video)

The history of Rotary in the fight against polio

The strategy to end polio

Honoring Salk and Sabin by finishing the job of ending polio (video)

- May 2024