Max Essex is Chair of the Harvard AIDS Initiative (HAI), the Mary Woodard Lasker Professor of Health Sciences at Harvard University, and Chair of the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership (BHP). He received his DVM degree at Michigan State University, his PhD at the University of California Davis, and was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Tumor Biology at the Karolinska Institute School of Medicine in Stockholm.
In 1982, Essex hypothesized, with Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier, that a retrovirus was the cause of AIDS. For this the three shared the 1986 Lasker Award, the highest honor given for medical research in the U.S.
With doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows, he identified the envelope proteins of HIV that are routinely used for diagnosis of HIV/AIDS and for blood screening. His laboratory group also identified many other protein products of both HIV and HTLV, including the transforming protein Tax of HTLV-1, and the nef, vif, pol, vpx, vpu, and vpr of HIV. With students and collaborators, he identified the simian T cell leukemia virus (STLV) and the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) in monkeys, and HIV-2 in people in West Africa. His group showed that HIV-2 was less virulent and less transmissible than HIV-1, and that certain subtypes of HIV-1, particularly HIV-1C, are more efficiently transmitted from mother to infant in utero and during the process of birth.
Since 1990, most of Essex’s research has focused on HIV in developing countries, especially Thailand, Senegal, Tanzania, and Botswana. His recent research has focused on the use of antiretroviral drugs for Treatment asPprevention (TasP) in adults. He and his team have conducted several breakthrough studies on the prevention of mother-to-infant transmission of HIV. These studies have resulted in guideline recommendations used by the World Health Organization (WHO) to reduce maternal transmission of HIV in developing countries.
Essex has published over 580 research papers; more than 40 have been in Science or Nature. He has edited 10 books, including AIDS in Africa and Emerging Infections in Asia. His most recent book, Saturday Is for Funerals, was published in 2010 and coauthored with AIDS activist and former Botswana Supreme Court Justice Unity Dow. He has trained 27 doctoral research students and 60 postdoctoral fellows.
Essex has received 9 honorary degrees. He is an elected member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology. In 2007, the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health established the Essex Fellowship for Students from Africa in his honor. In November 2011 Essex received the HIV Lifetime Achievement Award for Scientific Contributions from the Institute of Human Virology (IHV) at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. In 2014, he received the AIDS Society of India’s Lifetime Achievement Award at a ceremony in Kolkata. The plaque reads “For his exemplary contribution towards research in HIV/AIDS and for his outstanding leadership in public health.”