Development of the Polio Vaccine: A Historical Perspective of Tuskegee University’s Role in Mass Production and Distribution of HeLa Cells
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Development of the Polio Vaccine:
A Historical Perspective of Tuskegee University’s Role in Mass Production and Distribution of HeLa Cells

The attention recently paid to the story of Henrietta Lacks and her HeLa cell line following the publication of Rebecca Skloot’s highly acclaimed book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, has highlighted the numerous scientific discoveries directly attributable to research utilizing this cell line.1 Shortly after its establishment, the limitless potential of the HeLa cell line became clearly apparent from its use in the propagation of the poliovirus. It was the need for massive amounts of HeLa cells for the evaluation of Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine that forever intertwined the history of Tuskegee University to the noteworthy history of the HeLa cell.

When the words research and Tuskegee University are mentioned in the same sentence, many individuals outside this University’s Lincoln Gates think of the important research conducted by Dr. George Washington Carver. And although Dr. Carver’s contributions are beyond reproach, when it comes to scientific research on Tuskegee’s campus, several of its lesser-known scientists have left their own indelible marks. Two such scientists, Drs. Russell W. Brown (Figure 1) and James H.M. Henderson (Figure 2) made their mark by leading a team of researchers and staff at Tuskegee University in the mass production of the infamous HeLa cells for use nationally in the development of the polio vaccine.

Historical perspective on polio among Blacks

Before going directly into the mass production of HeLa cells on Tuskegee’s campus, a brief historical perspective on the University’s prior involvement in polio treatment is warranted. Many factors and circumstances came into play to initiate Tuskegee’s involvement in the polio vaccine’s development. First and foremost, there was the prevalent racist climate found in this country. This attitude was expounded in the Southeast by Jim Crow discriminatory practices that belittled and held back Black people and made their lives more difficult. Compounding this was a ubiquitous belief in the orthopedic realm that Black polio victims were a rarity, with some people even believing that Blacks were immune to the disease. A combination of these factors led to a disregard for the suffering faced by Blacks infected with the polio virus.2 [End Page 5]

Figure 1. Dr. Russell W. Brown, Principal Investigator of the Tuskegee University HeLa Cell Project.
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Figure 1.

Dr. Russell W. Brown, Principal Investigator of the Tuskegee University HeLa Cell Project.

Figure 2. Dr. H.M. Henderson, Co-Principal Investigator of the Tuskegee University HeLa Cell Project.
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Figure 2.

Dr. H.M. Henderson, Co-Principal Investigator of the Tuskegee University HeLa Cell Project.

For over a decade, Black activists challenged such flawed thinking, and the idea that polio was a Whites-only disease.2 Dr. John Chenault, the head of Orthopedic Surgery at Tuskegee University’s John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital, and the eventual Director of the hospital’s Infantile Paralysis Unit was one such activist. Dr. Chenault conducted his own study in Alabama on the occurrence of polio in Blacks, and examined existing data on this subject from a Georgia Survey of Crippled Children. From his research, Dr. Chenault concluded that although the racial incidence of polio among Blacks was somewhat lower than among Whites, the fatalities observed were relatively higher. He found the disease (polio) caused approximately 20% of the crippling cases observed among Blacks. Dr. Chenault’s investigation led him to believe that the absence of quality treatment facilities for Blacks played a major role in the number cases witnessed.3,4

Establishment of the Tuskegee Infantile Paralysis Center

In 1936, a polio epidemic swept through the Southern region of the United States, severely crippling children, both Black and White. This outbreak further exposed the challenges that Black polio patients faced when seeking or receiving medical care. The discriminatory practices of [End Page 6] the time, especially in the South, left most Black patients with the disease perpetually searching for suitable treatment facilities.2,4

In 1938, polio’s most famous victim, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) to raise funding to specifically aid in the treatment and cure of polio. The NFIP’s mandate was to increase the research and education...