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Isabel Morgan, Pioneer of the Killed-Virus Polio Vaccine

Last updated: February 12, 2023

Isabel Morgan made many contributions to the development of a polio vaccine, none greater than her creation of a killed-virus vaccine that worked on monkeys. She decided to become a homemaker rather than develop the vaccine further, but her breakthrough made Jonas Salk’s development of a polio vaccine possible.

Isabel Morgan’s Early Days

Isabel Merrick Morgan was born Aug. 11, 1911. She was the daughter of embryologist Thomas Hunt Morgan, who received the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his study of chromosomes and heredity, and Lilian Vaughan Sampson, who often assisted her husband and published her own papers on genetics.

Isabel Morgan earned a PhD in bacteriology and received a job at the Rockefeller Institute, working there for six years before moving to a laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in 1944 to study polio.

Morgan’s Notable Accomplishments

Sources in this Story

  • PBS (WGBH): American Experience: The Polio Crusade
  • The Nobel Foundation: Thomas H. Morgan Biography
  • The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions: The David Bodian Collection
  • UPMC/ University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences: Timeline Development of the Salk Polio Vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh
  • Los Angeles Times: The Unsung Women in the Race for the Polio Vaccine

At Hopkins, Morgan worked with Howard A. Howe and David Bodian in developing a vaccine for polio, a disease that was paralyzing thousands of Americans every year. In their experiments with monkeys, the research team made several significant advances; it “demonstrated that the polio virus that was transmitted through the mouth and digestive tract was in fact three distinct types of virus, and they showed that antibodies to the virus were carried through the bloodstream, demonstrating that for a vaccine to be effective it must include antibodies recognizing all three types of virus,” explains The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

The Hopkins team worked on both live-virus and killed-virus vaccines. Many researchers at the time believed that only a live-virus vaccine would be strong enough to stop polio; in 1948, however, Morgan “demonstrated definitively that chemically inactivated poliovirus derived from monkey spinal cords would induce immunity when injected into monkeys,” indicating that a killed-virus vaccine could work, explains the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences.

The next step for Morgan would have been experiments on children. She chose not to take this step, however, deciding to move away from the lab in 1949 to become a homemaker. University of Pittsburgh researcher Jonas Salk built on Morgan’s killed-virus research to develop a vaccine that was declared safe and effective in 1955.

David M. Oshinsky, author of “Polio: An American Story,” believes that Morgan could have beaten Salk to the vaccine had she continued her search. “She was probably a year or two ahead of Jonas Salk in the race for a vaccine,” he told WGBH. “Had she stayed the course, there’s a good chance today we’d be talking about the Morgan vaccine and not the Salk vaccine.”

The Rest of the Story

Morgan never returned to polio research. She worked with the Westchester County Department of Laboratory Research and joined the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute in the 1960s as a consultant. She died in 1996.

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