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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
footballHe started just four months ago
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect