Skip to main content

The Networks of Women Behind the Polio Vaccine

The polio vaccine highlights the networks of women—some scientists, some not, some named, and some not—who made the laborious, costly, and difficult work of vaccine development possible.

printer friendly  
Isabel Merrick Morgan. She and her team were the first to prove that an inactive or “killed” virus could produce immunity in monkeys, overturning the previous belief that only live viruses could do so. Her work led to the development of Salk Vaclk Vaccine, Photo courtesy of Barbara Morgan Roberts

Stuck indoors while the sunshine blazes outside, the children of today’s COVID-19 pandemic can relate to the children of the 1940s and 1950s who grappled with the polio outbreaks that reared their ugly heads as schools broke for the summer each year in the U.S. The fact that polio overwhelmingly affected young children added a layer of desperation to the search for a cure or vaccine. In 1955, Jonas Salk was lauded as the first to develop an effective polio vaccine. But without the women scientists, secretaries, and even glass cleaners on Salk’s team, as well as fundraisers and researchers who worked on the vaccine’s development long before him, Salk’s feat and the lives it saved would not have been possible.

Women have historically had their achievements in science overlooked, forgotten, or even stolen. In the case of the polio vaccine, a lack of record keeping has left researchers struggling to identify many of the women on Salk’s team. Despite the gaps in the historical record, the life-saving contributions of the women we do know of illustrate the collaborative nature of research in science and medicine. Vaccines are not produced in a vacuum nor does their creation sprout from a single mind, and the polio vaccine highlights the networks of women—some scientists, some not, some named, and some not—who made the laborious, costly, and difficult work of vaccine development possible. 

Elise Ward was involved in Salk’s team from the very start. Although a zoologist by training rather than a microbiologist, she was famed for her exemplary ability to grow and maintain any cell culture. Her role in the development of the polio vaccine involved growing polioviruses in non-nervous tissues. Ward successfully identified monkey kidney tissues as the most effective material on which to grow the viruses. This enabled researchers to grow large quantities of polioviruses, speeding up the timeline for vaccine research drastically. 

Of her work on the polio project, Ward said, “It was such pure joy to come to work… to look in the microscope and see what we saw was a great thrill.” Despite Ward’s love of her work, it was potentially life-threatening. Ward and colleagues used notoriously dangerous (and now defunct) oral pipettes. The technique involved sucking on a glass straw to take up liquids before removing the pipette from the mouth to release the liquid into another container. Ward was only ever one strong suck away from getting a mouth full of deadly polio. 

Despite the passion and undeniable contributions of Ward and other members of his staff to the development of the vaccine, Salk failed to acknowledge their involvement at arguably the most crucial moment—during a televised 1955 symposium in Ann Arbour. While on stage declaring to a rapturous crowd that he had developed a vaccine that was both safe and effective, the vital contributions of his staff, who were in the audience and without whom he never would have succeeded with his creation, went unmentioned. Although Salk later tried to publicly credit them, many on his team felt the moment had passed.

It was at another conference that Salk had learned that prominent virologist Dr. Isabel Morgan had experienced a significant breakthrough in her work. At the time, Salk was facing pushback from his academic counterparts, exacerbated by the fact that he was younger and generally less experienced. Many disagreed with his vaccine design, believing that a vaccine containing the live form of the virus would be more successful than Salk’s attempts at a killed vaccine. In contrast, Dr. Isabel Morgan’s work supported Salk’s. She was the first to successfully inoculate a killed-virus vaccine into monkeys. This development laid the foundations for Salk to continue working on his eventually successful killed-virus vaccine.

Unfortunately, as has often been and still is the case for many women scientists, Morgan decided she needed to leave her career in research after she married to take care of her husband, stepson, and home. Morgan’s motivations for quitting have also been linked to a reluctance to take her research to the next level—clinical trials involving the inoculation of children. There is no doubt that her leaving scientific research was a great loss for immunology, science, and humanity as a whole. David Oshinsky, author of Polio: An American Story explained that “she was probably a year or two ahead of Jonas Salk in the race for a vaccine, had she stayed the course, there’s a good chance today we’d be talking about the Morgan vaccine and not the Salk vaccine.”

“If these men had taken Eddy’s warnings seriously, many children’s lives may have been saved.”

Another woman scientist, virologist and epidemiologist Bernice Eddy, could have played a critical role in the safety of Salk’s vaccine had her expertise not been underestimated. Eddy identified problems with a batch of the vaccine before it went to mass clinical trial but her findings were ignored. Eddy worked as a vaccine tester to ensure their safety before they were released to the general public. When testing the polio vaccine produced by Cutter Laboratories, she noticed that the vaccine contained live poliovirus, which infected the test animals. She escalated her findings to the head of the Laboratory of Biologics Control, William Workman, but he never passed these on to the vaccine licensing advisory committee. William Sebrell, the director of the National Institutes of Health, was notified, and he too chose to dismiss Eddy’s findings and proceeded to license the vaccine for use on the public. Hundreds of thousands of children were inoculated with an improperly inactivated version of the Salk vaccine. Forty thousand developed abortive poliomyelitis, a less aggressive form of polio that does not affect the nervous system, and 51 developed paralytic poliomyelitis, which can be fatal. As if this wasn’t devastating enough, some of the affected children transmitted the virus to others, resulting in the death of five and affliction of 113 other children with the nastier paralytic poliomyelitis. If these men had taken Eddy’s warnings seriously, many children’s lives may have been saved. Although Sebrell later went on to resign, his dismissal of Eddy’s findings serves as a reminder of a long history of silencing women in science.

The network of women that helped in the development of the polio vaccine extended beyond scientists.  Secretaries were in charge of ordering in equipment, ensuring a constant influx of all that was necessary to create a vaccine. Glass cleaners kept the laboratory ticking over, allowing work to continue uninterrupted. Research assistants would have assisted the scientists with their work, often taking on monotonous and repetitive tasks. Without the vital contributions of these women in roles typically viewed as small or inconsequential, vaccine development could have been stalled or prevented entirely. 

In addition, mothers across the nation took part in the annual Million Mothers March to raise millions of dollars to support the development of a polio vaccine. Salk’s team received a hefty amount of these funds, to the disdain of his rivals, such as Albert Sabin, who went on to produce a more effective version of the vaccine after Salk. The Million Mothers March funded massive clinical trials for Salk’s vaccine that resulted in the discovery of the vaccine’s 80-90% effectiveness. The Girl Scouts also aided development of the vaccine with their fundraising efforts. Without the funds that these women and girls raised, vaccine development would have taken years, if not decades longer to accomplish.

Eventually, Salk and his team were successful at developing an effective vaccine against polio. In 1955, the first vaccines were administered to children, and it only took a few years before polio was almost entirely eradicated from the United States. Since 1979 there have been zero cases of polio in the United States. Globally, the vaccine has prevented slow, painful deaths and the permanent disabling of children, and allowed further research to be undertaken to develop even safer forms of the vaccine. 

Without the founding work of people like Dr. Isabel Morgan and Bernice Eddy, and the millions of dollars raised by women and girls, the polio vaccine would not exist today. At a time when the race to develop another kind of vaccine is at the forefront of public consciousness, recognizing the role women played in polio vaccine development reminds us that vaccines take an army of scientists, researchers, and fundraisers to develop. Many women involved in the polio vaccine had their names lost to poor record keeping, or their contributions dismissed due to their sex. Let that not be the case with COVID-19 or vaccines to follow.


Stephanie Martin is a freelance science communicator with a focus on environmental and social justice journalism and presenting. Her blog is available at www.stephintonature.com and her Twitter & Instagram are @ForestLadySteph.

SUPPORT LADY SCIENCE
We are independent, not-for-profit media and rely solely on the support from our readers and listeners to pay our writers, editors, and a number of recurring operational expenses each month. All donations go directly to Lady Science.