Dr. J. Thomas August, a pioneer in molecular biology, and more recently vaccine development, died on Feb. 11 in Baltimore, Md. The cause was metastatic cancer. He was 91, and with his wife Jean had been part of the Vineyard community since 1980 when they bought property from Amyas Ames at Seven Gates Farm in West Tisbury.

Tom’s earliest research was in endocrinology but in the 1960s he turned to molecular biology. In 1980, he discovered proteins in the membranes of tiny structures within cells, called lysosomes, which act as transport vehicles to shuttle cellular contents into and out of the cell. He found that the proteins, that he named lysosome-associate membrane proteins (LAMP), help to activate the immune system by delivering foreign substances or antigens to other immune system cells.

The discovery revolutionized the field of immunology as scientists began to develop vaccines that could leverage the ability of LAMP to inform the immune system of antigens that pose a threat to the human body. In recent decades Tom studied the development of vaccines to target viruses such as HIV, dengue, influenza and West Nile.

He was born in Whittier, Calif., in 1927, the youngest of six children of John and Elizabeth August, immigrants from what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He met Jean Nordstrom at Whittier High School, and their romance continued through Tom’s Army service in Alaska and their college years at Stanford University. In 2018 they celebrated 67 years of marriage.

He was a 1954 graduate of Stanford University’s School of Medicine. He trained in medicine at the Royal Infirmary, the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, was a resident at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and a research fellow in medicine at Harvard Medical School. He was a faculty member at Stanford and New York University before he was appointed the Siegfried Ullmann Professor of Molecular Biology, chairman of the department of molecular biology and director of the division of biological sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. 

From 1976 to 1999, he was director of the department of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Basic Sciences division.

“It is hard to exaggerate the personal and scientific impact of Tom on our department. The example he set in terms of pursuing creative and innovative research with direct application to human health was inspiring, and his gracious demeanor and warmth will always be with us,” said James Stivers, professor and interim director of pharmacology and molecular sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Tom was known as a gifted teacher and mentor who trained dozens of students who have gone on to lead successful careers in immunology and other fields.

He was associated with Cold Spring Harbor Biological Laboratories in Long Island, N.Y., both as a scientist and as a board member, while it was under the directorship of John Cairns in the 1960s and 1970. He was always keen to collaborate and consult with other researchers, and worked at Caltech in Pasadena, The Salk Institute, Uppsala University, Oxford University. Director of Johns Hopkins Singapore from 2003 to 2009, he was beloved by students there who benefited from his intensive mentoring. In Recife, Brazil, he led a vaccine and epitope discovery research project that included creation of a virology laboratory, Laboratorio de Virologia e Terapia Experimental — LaViTE. His effective capacity-building efforts in personnel training and laboratory infrastructure paid off when LaViTE identified the Zika outbreak, the Zika virus, and the role of Zika in viral encephalitis and microcephaly.

In 2006 he founded Immunomic Therapeutics Inc. with William Hearl. In 2015 ITI entered into an exclusive worldwide license agreement with Astellas Pharma Inc. of Japan with respect to ITI’s LAMP technology. This was Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions’ largest technology transfer to date, netting the institution around $50 million in royalty payments.

Dr. August was named a University Distinguished Service Professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 2001. He was the Markle Scholar in Medicine Sciences at Stanford from 1960-1965, a fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, a recipient of the Johnson and Johnson Focused Giving Award and fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

He holds eight patents on vaccine-related technology and has published hundreds of scientific articles in academic journals.

In addition to science, his love was the garden, both in Baltimore and at Seven Gates, where he spent daily time tending, transplanting and glorying in the natural world.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Christina E. August Hecht, two sons, Paul Nordstrom August and Stephen Thomas August; five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial service at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is being planned.