dorothy horstmann, dr. dorothy horstmann
Ed Ford/AP
Dr. David Bodian, left, and Dr. Dorothy M.
Horstmann review reports before appearing at a meeting
of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in 1952.

Dorothy Horstmann, Doctor Instrumental in Search for Polio Vaccine, First Female Medical Professor at Yale

March 03, 2010
by Haley A. Lovett
Dr. Dorothy Horstmann’s research at Yale University determined the progression of polio from blood stream to the central nervous system, a key step in developing the vaccines for polio. Unfortunately, she is often overlooked when credit is given for these medical breakthroughs. 

Dorothy Horstmann’s Early Days

Dorothy Horstmann was born on July 2, 1911, in Spokane, Wash. She earned her undergraduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley, and her doctorate at the University of California, San Francisco. In regard to her academic achievements, Dr. David M. Oshinsky, author of “Polio, An American Story,” quoted Horstmann as saying that it had “never crossed my mind that [this] was in any way unusual for a woman.”

Horstman began to study infectious disease during her residency at San Francisco County Hospital, and later did a residency at Vanderbilt University Hospital, in spite of originally being rejected because she was a woman. In 1942, she continued on to Yale to do research.

Horstmann’s Notable Accomplishments

Polio is spread by contact with fecal matter. It begins as an intestinal infection and in the majority of cases, it is beaten and eliminated from the system. In about one percent of cases, however, the polio infection reaches the central nervous system, causing damage such as paralysis, or even death in cases where the lungs are paralyzed. One notable victim of polio was President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the time of Horstmann’s studies, polio outbreaks would occur nearly every summer, crippling or killing mostly children.

A team at Yale had been studying poliomyelitis (often called “polio”) and during an outbreak in 1943, Horstmann began studying polio as well.

The major obstacle in vaccinating for polio was that the victims of the disease had no trace of the virus in their bloodstream, making it difficult to determine exactly how the disease got to the central nervous system. When collecting blood samples from victims of the disease, Horstmann found that only one case showed evidence of the virus in the blood sample. This discovery led her to wonder if the virus was only detectible in the blood for a short period of time before symptoms appeared. She began to run experiments on monkeys given the polio virus, testing their blood and stool to evaluate how the virus progressed. Horstmann found that a few days after exposure, the virus could be detected in the blood, but was usually absent once symptoms appeared.

Horstmann presented her findings at a meeting of the American Association of Immunologists in April 1952. Dr. David Bodian of Johns Hopkins University presented similar findings from similar studies conducted around the same time as Horstmann’s study.

The findings of Horstmann and Bodian meant that it was possible to develop a vaccine to treat the virus in the bloodstream before the nervous system was attacked.

The Rest of the Story

Later, when Dr. Albert B. Sabin of the Soviet Union developed an oral polio vaccine, the World Health Organization asked Horstmann to evaluate the effectiveness of the vaccine in eastern European countries, and determine if it was acceptable for use in the United States. Horstmann found the vaccine to be effective, and it was then used in the U.S. and elsewhere, drastically decreasing the number of polio cases worldwide.

In 1961, Horstmann was made a professor at Yale School of Medicine, the first woman to be appointed. In 1969, she was the first woman to receive an endowed chair at the school. Later she became a member of the National Academy of Sciences and president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Horstmann died on Jan. 11, 2001, at the age of 89.

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