Leading researcher for COVID-19 vaccine approved to receive honorary degree from KU; doctor got his start at KU Med

photo by: Associated Press

Students cross Jayhawk Boulevard in front of Strong Hall on the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

The University of Kansas plans to award an honorary degree to a one-time Kansas farm boy who went on to become a leading doctor in the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The Kansas Board of Regents this week approved a request from KU to award an honorary degree to Dr. Barney Graham, who is the deputy director of the vaccine research center within the National Institutes of Health. KU hasn’t formally announced its plans to award a degree to Graham, but the information submitted to the Regents indicated KU would do so at the university’s May 16 commencement ceremony.

Graham is a 1979 graduate of the KU School of Medicine. He grew up in nearby Paola, in Miami County. According to a recent article from the news service of Vanderbilt University — where Graham received a doctorate in 1991 — he grew up as a “Kansas farm boy with a curious mind.”

“On a farm, you spend about half the day fixing equipment in order to get work done on the back end of the day,” he told the Vanderbilt writer. “I got some really great experiences in figuring out how to solve problems.”

In his role with NIH, Graham is the chief of the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory, which includes leading the organization’s development efforts for COVID-19 vaccines and influenza vaccines.

In the Vanderbilt article, Graham described how he oversaw the injection of the first volunteers with an experimental vaccine developed by Moderna. Two months after those injections, he recalled getting an important phone call. It was to relay the results of the first blood serum analysis from those volunteers.

As the article described, Graham let out a breath that “he felt like he had been holding for months” when his colleague on the other end of the line told him, “Barney, it looks like it is working.”

Graham agreed once he saw the charts.

“It not only exceeded my expectations, it exceeded my hopes,” he said.

After leaving KU Med — where he had met his wife — in 1979, he went to Nashville and Vanderbilt to finish his residency. While chief resident at Nashville General Hospital, he treated Tennessee’s first AIDS patient, then went on to be a leader of the first U.S. human trials of an AIDS vaccine while at Vanderbilt.

Graham joined the NIH in 2000 to become one of the founding investigators for the Vaccine Research Center.


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