History of Vaccines: Part 2

Virus, Vaccines, Verification

World War II accelerated vaccine development. Fear of a repetition of the 1918–19 world epidemic of influenza focused urgent attention on all viral diseases, while commercial production of antibiotics taught researchers to grow viruses with less contamination. Also, investigators paid closer attention to vaccine safety and effectiveness through clinical studies before release of a vaccine to the public, especially after the yellow fever vaccine apparently caused hepatitis B in many U.S. soldiers in 1942.

The U.S. Army hospital in Royat, France, during the World War I influenza epidemic
Courtesy of National Library of Medicine

Early Research

Polio vaccine is made from the actual virus. For both research and production, vaccine makers needed to grow large quantities of virus. Influenza virus had been grown in chicken eggs, but this method did not work for polio. So researchers sought other materials in which to grow poliovirus.

Laboratory workers preparing chicken eggs for use as the nutrient base for growing viruses, 1940s

In 1936, Albert Sabin and Peter Olitsky at the Rockefeller Institute demonstrated that poliovirus could grow in human embryonic brain tissue, but they feared that this method might risk central nervous system damage in those who received the vaccine. The advantage of embryonic tissue, however, was that it grew quickly.

Copy of page from Thomas Weller's notebook, March 30, 1948, describing the experiment for which he, John Enders, and Frederick Robbins won the Nobel Prize in 1954
Courtesy of Watson Publishing International

Thomas Weller, Frederick Robbins, and John Enders receiving the Nobel Prize in Stockholm, for “the cultivation of the poliomyelitis viruses in tissue culture,” 1954

A Nobel Prize

In March 1948, John Enders, Thomas Weller, and Frederick Robbins used human embryonic skin and muscle tissue grown in a nutrient mix with antibiotics to prove poliovirus could infect tissue other than nerve cells. Their confirmation meant that researchers could now grow enough poliovirus to create large quantities of vaccine.

The three scientists won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1954, the year polio vaccine had its first large clinical trial. Neither Jonas Salk nor Albert Sabin received a Nobel Prize for their work in creating vaccines.


Twentieth Century Vaccines