During the summers of the early 1950s, multitudes of American children were stuck in their homes. Parents would not allow them to play together because when the weather warmed up society entered into a nightmare called polio. Children eagerly started their school vacations with a bicycle, scooter or kite and ended them with crutches, braces or a steel lung.
Polio, or polio, had been in medical textbooks for decades. During the summers of the early 20th century, however, this disease became an epidemic. The virus that causes the disease can infect anyone, but in the United States it has caused the worst damage in children under five, so polio has been called childhood paralysis.
At the start of 1953, there was a glimmer of hope that this nightmare might come to an end. Medical researcher Jonas Salk has created a polio vaccine that, when injected, stimulates the immune system to make antibodies that fight the virus. By January of that year he had inoculated 161 people and the results looked promising. Salk’s work was funded by the National Foundation for Childhood Paralysis (NFIP). This organization, founded in 1938 by polio sufferer and US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, grew out of a dilapidated spa in Warm Springs, Georgia, for people with the disease, to become a major funder of the polio research. With Salk’s early results, the NFIP, with its broad mission to defeat polio, began to push for hundreds of thousands of children to be immunized. But before moving forward, Salk wanted to make sure his vaccine was the “safest, safest” approach by monitoring the inoculation’s ability to trigger enough antibodies to neutralize the virus. In previous tests, monkeys were injected with the vaccine and monitored to see if they got sick, or their cells were observed to see if they were deformed. But the number of animals needed to test thousands of children was too expensive and cumbersome.
Fortunately, the researchers had discovered that there were unique cells that could help. They were HeLa cells, the living line of cancer cells taken without permission from a black patient named Henrietta Lacks years earlier. After the blood was drawn from a vaccinated patient, part of it was placed in a glass dish with HeLa cells and a small dose of polio. With these objects, a microscopic and deadly battle began. In the dish, the poliovirus attempted to attack the HeLa cells. If there were enough of the appropriate antibodies in the patient’s blood, however, they would prevent the virus from causing damage. Scientists could easily see the cells under a microscope. If the HeLa cells looked distorted, it meant that the correct antibodies were not present in the blood.
To evaluate his vaccine, Salk would need huge amounts of HeLa cells. He would get help not from established traditional institutions such as Harvard University or Yale University, but from a small black college in the South that has become famous for growing peanuts.
In 1881, educator Booker T. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute with 30 students in a former church in Alabama. Washington had big dreams for his small school, and they came true. Just 50 years later, the number of students has multiplied by 100. And the whole nation has come to know this institute thanks to the pioneering work of botanist George Washington Carver on peanut cultivation there. During World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black flying squadron, also put this sleepy part of the country on the map.
The NFIP had an old relationship with the Tuskegee Institute. In the 1940s, the NFIP funded the Tuskegee Infantile Paralysis Center, which not only supported the treatment of black people with polio, but also trained black medical staff to return to work in their communities. This medical center was one of the few polio centers treating black children because American hospitals were separated. Even FDR’s Warm Springs did not accept black patients. In October 1952[[[[, ahead of polio vaccine testing, NFIP Research Director Harry Weaver asked Russell W. Brown, Director of the Carver Research Foundation at the Tuskegee Institute, to transform his halls into the first HeLa cell factory in the world. Brown, who had a doctorate in bacterial physiology, was appointed as the project director, and James (Jimmy) Henderson, a plant physiologist, assisted him. These black men were called upon to serve humanity at a time when their humanity was often denied. Not far from them, the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment was underway.
Brown and Henderson were both strong scientists, but growing, storing, and caring for HeLa cells was not part of their technical training. This kind of expertise resides in a growing field called tissue culture. The vaccine trial proposed by Salk would require 10,000 glass tubes of HeLa cells every week from Tuskegee. William F. Scherer, a young postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota who did the early work on poliovirus using HeLa cells, had instructed the students on the subject. He agreed to provide Brown and Henderson with the skills they needed. So on January 16, 1953, Brown and Henderson boarded a train in Alabama. And on January 18, 1953, they arrived in the freezing cold of Minnesota for their new mission.
In the 1950s, the twin cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota were separated. Finding campus housing for these two black men in 1953 was not without effort, especially since the university dormitories were still new to allow black occupants. Rooms were made available near the edge of campus, making walking to their lab quite unpleasant in rough weather. These two black scientists, however, found their Midwestern hosts hospitable. Under the Minnesota stars, Brown and Henderson learned the basics of cell and tissue culture and designed their Tuskegee lab, preparing for the renovations that would begin upon their return. They were to be quick studies: Brown stayed in Minnesota for four weeks and Henderson stayed for two. Both were back in Alabama in February 1953.
In April 1953, Scherer headed south to Tuskegee to see the new facility and deliver a valuable package. His package contained content sensitive to temperature changes, and April was one of the few times that Minnesota and Alabama had identical climates. While others on Scherer’s plane drank cocktails (stopping as they hovered over dry states), his mind was also focused on a bottle – the bottle in his purse. It contained around 30 million HeLa cells. When he arrived at the Tuskegee Institute, liquid was added to these cells, which then fed 40 more bottles. After four days of incubation, each of these vials contained an additional 30 million cells, marking the birth of the HeLa cell factory at the Tuskegee Institute.
Inside the Tuskegee HeLa cell factory, cells were grown in a long line of incubators, measured in glass tubes, packaged and then shipped by air to about two dozen medical labs across the country. Tuskegee’s mission was tough for any school, especially a small, underfunded school in the hot south. The HeLa cells died when temperatures reached around 105 degrees Fahrenheit. While air conditioning had made the Sunbelt bearable and led to a southerly migration in the 1920s, these sensitive cells were doomed if they traveled in hot cars, waited on hot tarmacs, or sat in cargo hulls from around the world. burning plane. So, the leadership of the NFIP asked Maria Telkes, a physico-chemist at New York University, to come up with a packaging solution to keep cells cool during transport. Telkes, an expert in thermal insulation, calculated and designed a special shipping container that looked like a Russian doll. In this one, a box covered with insulation was inside another box. The inner box contained a box full of sodium sulfate decahydrate, which rested on the glass tubes and kept the cells from overheating. Once placed in these boxes, the cells had to arrive at their destination within 96 hours. Someone went to airports in Montgomery, Alabama, and Columbus, Georgia, to make sure those packages didn’t miss their flights.
There have been many failures to keep the HeLa process going, and appeals and letters from NFIP officials berated Brown about the contaminated samples, poor cell yield, and the arrival of dead cells. Brown was also confused. âThe current situation is clearly unfavorable,â he wrote to the leaders of the NFIP in December 1953. But Norma Gaillard, head of cell culture at Tuskegee, has continued to make improvements and has developed an effective procedure that his technicians followed precisely. The team vigorously tracked down sources of contamination and installed special air conditioners to keep the lab cool and remove the last remnants of dust and moisture. With time and effort, the technicians finally passed the 10,000 glass tubes of HeLa cells that had to be shipped within a week. By early 1954, the HeLa cell factory was ready to be part of the world’s largest experiment. It was also a good thing, because summer and polio season was coming.
On April 26, 1954, the field trial of Salk’s polio vaccine began. This trial was a medical logistics effort on a scale never seen before. The NFIP employed several pharmaceutical companies to manufacture the vaccine and also mobilized armies of 20,000 doctors, 40,000 nurses, 1,000 public health professionals, 14,000 school principals, 50,000 teachers and 200,000 volunteers to administer injections. Overall, nearly 420,000 children were vaccinated and 200,000 received placebo injections, with an additional 1.2 million children seen in the study.
Within this massive health campaign, there were an astronomical number of HeLa cells, which resided inside the 400,000 glass tubes shipped from a quiet corner of the South. These cells, taken from a black woman and cultivated by black scientists, made visible the effectiveness of a long-awaited protection against polio. Ultimately, Thomas Francis, Jr., director of the Center for Polio Vaccine Evaluation at the University of Michigan, announced on April 12, 1955 that the vaccine was “safe, effective, and potent.”
The inoculation was approved for distribution, cases of the disease began to decline, and Salk became a national hero. But the role of the Tuskegee Institute and its researchers has remained hidden long after the fear of polio faded from the nation’s memory.