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Dr Hilary Koprowski: Virologist who developed the first oral vaccine against polio


A Polish Jew who had fled the Nazi invasion and settled in the US, Hilary Koprowski developed the first oral vaccine against poliomyelitis, the infant paralysis which swept across North America, the British Isles and beyond in the postwar years, causing death or disability.

To demonstrate faith in his research in 1948, he swallowed a cocktail including the ground-up brain of a rat which had been deliberately infected with the polio virus. He showed no ill-effects from the dose, which was still a "live" virus, though "attenuated" or reduced, then tested it on child inmates of an institution for the physically or mentally disabled in New York. Although it is almost inconceivable that such tests could be allowed today, they proved a medical success in that the children suffered no ill-effects.

In the British Medical Journal of 9 July 1960 he described his early experiments against polio, including those on himself and, on 27 February 1950, his use of a polio virus on an eight-year-old boy in the Letchworth Village institution. After the boy showed no side effects, Koprowski tested 19 other patients there.

Koprowski's discovery helped save millions of children from paralysis, eventually all but eradicating the disease. But he soon found his role overshadowed by two other Americans who went on to international acclaim, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Salk, who invented the first injectable polio vaccine, from a "dead" (or inactivated) virus, became something of a folk hero and superstar in the US.

He appeared on talk shows, was welcomed by posters saying "Thank you, Dr Salk" on shop windows and invariably had his presence on flights announced, to great applause, by pilots. He never quite came to terms with such celebrity and often said it had ruined his scientific calling until his death in 1995. Koprowski was the opposite, continuing to work quietly in virology until two years before he died.

He went on to help develop vaccines against rubella (German measles) and rabies, and, in his sixties, helped advance the study of monoclonal antibodies in an attempt to fight cancer in the same way he had fought polio. He was not included with Salk and Sabin in the insensitively named Polio Hall of Fame in Warm Springs, Georgia, which features bronze busts of Salk, Sabin and former president Franklin D Roosevelt, himself a polio victim.

"Dad actually enjoyed the fact that he did not achieve the fame of Salk or Sabin," said Koprowski's oncologist son, Christopher. "He said that would have stifled him scientifically and invaded his privacy." As for Sabin, who spent his career at odds with Salk but admitted his debt to Koprowski, he won recognition for licensing the first orally taken live, attenuated virus against polio – Koprowski's original idea – in 1955. Sabin died in 1993.

Hilary Koprowski was born in Warsaw in 1916 at the height of the Great War. An only child, he was a prodigious musician and Chopin lover, playing piano from the age of five and getting accepted into the Warsaw Conservatory to study music when he was 12. A born polymath, he became a multilingual teenager and graduated in medicine from Warsaw University.

In 1938 he married fellow student Irena Grasberg, who would go on to be a noted pathologist and cytologist. After the Nazi invasion of 1939, the couple fled separately, via Italy and France, reuniting in Rio de Janeiro, where she worked as a hospital pathologist and he was a virologist for the local branch of the Rockefeller Foundation, earning extra money in the evenings by teaching piano.

They moved to the US in 1944, where he worked first for the Lederle Laboratories in Pearl River, New York, and began his work on a possible polio vaccine, work he would continue at the renowned Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology in Philadelphia, where he was director from 1957-1991. During the 1990s allegations arose that his polio vaccination campaign in what was then the Belgian Congo in the 1960s may have created a bridge between primates and humans to spread the Aids virus. The theory, detailed by the British journalist Edward Hooper in his 1999 book The River, has been widely discredited. Koprowski, who died of pneumonia, published more than 800 scientific articles.

Phil Davison

Hilary Koprowski, virologist: born Warsaw 5 December 1916; married 1938 Irena Grasberg (died 2012; two sons); died Wynnewood, Pennsylvania 11 April 2013.