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.

News
Denny Miller in 1959 remake of Tarzan, the Ape Man
people
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl despairs during the arena auditions
tvX Factor review: Drama as Cheryl and Simon spar over girl band

News
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
news
News
i100Exclusive interview with the British analyst who helped expose Bashar al-Assad's use of Sarin gas
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Angel Di Maria celebrates his first goal for Manchester United against QPR
Football4-0 victory is team's first win under new manager Louis van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
art
News
newsIn short, yes
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script
tv'Thomas comes right up to the abyss', says the actor
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris claimed the top spot in this week's single charts
music
Sport
BoxingVideo: The incident happened in the very same ring as Tyson-Holyfield II 17 years ago
News
Groundskeeper Willie has backed Scottish independence in a new video
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor poses the question of whether we are every truly alone in 'Listen'
tvReview: Possibly Steven Moffat's most terrifying episode to date
News
i100
Life and Style
Cara Delevigne at the TopShop Unique show during London Fashion Week
fashion
News
The life-sized tribute to Amy Winehouse was designed by Scott Eaton and was erected at the Stables Market in Camden
peopleBut quite what the singer would have made of her new statue...
Sport
England's Andy Sullivan poses with his trophy and an astronaut after winning a trip to space
sport
News
peopleThe actress has agreed to host the Met Gala Ball - but not until 2015
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

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and i...

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and...

Primary Teaching Supply

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Day In a Page

These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

The fall of Rome?

Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
Glasgow girl made good

Glasgow girl made good

Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
The landscape of my imagination

The landscape of my imagination

Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories