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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Isabel Morgan, Polio, and the High Cost of Marriage

Polio, unique among humanity’s eradicated diseases, carries with it a visual familiarity that has insistently lingered far beyond its demise:

  • Boys and girls with leg braces and dual crutches.

  • FDR in his wheelchair.

  • Rooms full of iron lungs mechanically keeping children alive.

Paradoxically, that very familiarity has defanged our towering horror of the disease somewhat – we realise that all of these are terrible things, but they do not seem quite real precisely because we have such a firm grip on the peripherals and paraphernalia involved. It is not until you sink into the personal stories of the era that the clawing helplessness polio left in its wake comes staggeringly alive again.

Stories of families living in perfect happiness until one day a daughter complains of a stiff neck, and dies that night. And then another child the next. And another child the next. And another the next. We no longer have the visceral experience to understand that sheer, incomprehensible chasm of powerlessness in the face of a force that empties bed after bed in your house in spite of every effort, every sacrifice, you make to keep it at bay. Polio actually did not kill that many people compared to, say, the great influenza epidemic, but its ability to reach precisely those families that considered themselves the safest and cut them down put every family in a state of omnipresent fear stretching from the outbreak of the epidemic in 1916 until the late 1950s.

Jonas Salk was lauded as a hero, and rightfully so, when he unveiled his killed-virus vaccine in a sweeping series of tests in 1954, but for thousands that was too late. Massive outbreaks of polio in the early 1950s had taken their toll, and there are those still suffering today who just might have avoided their fate had it not been for one man and one marriage.

Isabel Morgan (1911–1996) was scientific royalty. She was the daughter of Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866–1945), the Nobel Prize-winning biologist whose work with Drosophila melanogaster had laid out definitively the chromosomal foundations of heredity, and experimental biologist Lilian Sampson, and her mother home-schooled her up to the third grade. Of her early life, we know little until we find her graduating from Stanford University in the early 1930s. In 1936, she received her master’s degree from Cornell, and in 1940 her doctoral thesis on Histopathological Changes Produced in Rabbits by Experimental Inoculation with Hemolytic Streptococci and Certain of their Component Factors was accepted at the University of Pennsylvania.

By 1938, she was at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, performing research on polio and encephalomyelitis that garnered for her a position at Johns Hopkins, where David Bodian and Howard Howe were working on categorising the serotypes, or varieties, of poliovirus that existed. Attempts to craft vaccines up to that point had largely worked on the assumption that there was only one primary variety, and as a result were ineffective. Morgan found that there were in fact three distinct serotypes, which would have to all be taken into account to produce a successful vaccine.

From 1944 to 1949 she also worked on the problem of how to create a polio vaccine that used killed viruses to trigger our immunity mechanisms. If possible, this method had marked advantages over the use of weakened, living viruses. Killing viruses is easier than weakening them, and dead viruses do not spring back into virulence the same way that even the most skilfully weakened ones have a habit of doing. The problem was that in the 1930s a scientist named Maurice Brodie had claimed he had used killed viruses to trigger the production of antibodies, but nobody was able to replicate his results, and as a result by the 1940s the virological community had largely abandoned killed viruses as a stimulant to the immune system.

But then, in 1949, Morgan crafted a batch of dead viruses grown in the neural tissue of a monkey, and injected it into another animal. The theory was that the infusion of dead viruses would jog the immune system to create antibodies which it could use to fight off future attacks of polio. The crucial test came when she injected very much alive polio directly into that monkey’s brain and waited to see if it would come down with polio. It did not. The principle of the killed-virus vaccine had been proven. Morgan then went one step further – showing why perhaps Brodie’s results had been difficult to replicate – by demonstrating that killed-virus vaccines worked best when given as a series of injections, which early researchers had not attempted, an idea which forms the basis of our modern, and by now very familiar, practice of employing booster shots.

All was going well, and then a man named Joseph Mountain came along and asked Isabel to marry him, and she did, dropping her research to start a life with him in Westchester, caring for his handicapped child of a former marriage and his household while taking what satisfaction she could in the lesser scientific facilities available to her at Westchester County’s Department of Laboratory Research. Whether because she balked at the dangers inherent in pushing her polio research into the next stage, which would have involved human testing, or because her new department lacked the resources that had been available to her at Johns Hopkins, she gave up her polio work, and by 1960 had switched to biostatistics as her field of study, carrying out epidemiological studies of the health impacts of air pollution.

Nobody at Johns Hopkins picked up her work, and the killed-virus vaccine had to wait for another six years before Salk was able to come up with his own version and distribute it widely. In the interim, two disastrous years of outbreak had left thousands of children dead. To be fair, some of the breakthroughs that Salk required, and that Morgan would have needed before mass-producing a safe and effective vaccine, were not available in 1949. Dorothy Horstmann’s discovery that polio multiplied in the small intestine, and so could be fought in the bloodstream, opened the way for new and safer approaches to vaccine delivery and replication that Morgan would have either had to discover for herself, or to wait until 1952 to read about in Horstmann’s paper like everybody else, but the general consensus seems to be that her work was a solid year ahead of Salk’s, and in epidemiology a year of uncontrolled outbreak can be a massive and terrifying thing.

The last part of Morgan’s career concentrated on studies of cancer therapies, work that she continued until 1979. She passed away in Arlington, Virginia in 1996.


Because Morgan’s career was cut short, you will pretty much only find her in larger books about polio, of which a deservedly revered one is David Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story (2005). It covers both the medical end, with stories of Salk and Sabin, Horstmann and Morgan, and the truly massive public relations machinery engineered by the March of Dimes to fund the drive for a vaccine, so there is something in there for everybody.

And if you want to read more stories about astounding women in medicine, you can grab a copy of my History of Women in Medicine and Medical Research, available on Amazon or from Pen & Sword Books.


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