- Selling Science: Polio and the Promise of Gamma Globulin by Stephen E. Mawdsley
Americans in the 1950s associated the polio vaccine with three individuals—Franklin Roosevelt, Jonas Salk, and Albert Sabin. It’s a perception that exists to this day. In truth, the two successful vaccines—Salk’s inactivated version, and Sabin’s live-virus competitor—were part of a team effort led by Basil O’Connor, president of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, and its revolutionary marketing arm, the March of Dimes. At a time when the federal government and the pharmaceutical industry had yet to endorse serious funding for medical research, the March of Dimes filled an important void. Raising tens of millions of dollars to find both the prevention and cure for polio—the latter goal never fulfilled—it supported a host of researchers who provided the building blocks for Salk and Sabin. How many types of poliovirus existed? A thorough investigation determined there were three. How did poliovirus enter the central nervous system? Studies at the Yale and Johns Hopkins polio units figured it out. Was it possible to produce enough safe poliovirus to inject into the arms of millions of children? John Enders, Fred Robbins, and Thomas Weller at Boston Children’s Hospital found the solution—winning a Nobel Prize for their efforts.
Stephen Mawdsley’s excellent new book, Selling Science, adds a fresh chapter to a now familiar polio story. By the early 1950s, he notes, Americans had become weary of waiting for the promised polio vaccines. Tens of thousands of children were being paralyzed each year, with no end in sight. Into this void stepped Dr. William McDowall Hammon, head of the Department of Epidemiology and Microbiology at the University of Pittsburgh, home to Salk’s well-financed and ever expanding virus laboratory. Hammon had little respect for Salk, and the feeling was mutual. Convinced that a vaccine could never produce a strong or lasting immune response, Hammon thought the risks outweighed the rewards. He proposed an alternative for battling polio: gamma globulin.
It wasn’t an entirely new idea. Gamma globulin, the blood fraction containing antibodies against disease, had been separated in the laboratory of Harvard’s Edward Cohn in the 1940s and used with promising early results against hepatitis and measles. Unlike the still untested polio vaccine, it appeared to be perfectly safe. Even better, it was plentiful and ready to go. The only thing missing was a vocal champion—a respected scientist ready to lobby hard for gamma globulin as a potential polio fighter. Enter Dr. Hammon.
With public confidence in the National Foundation eroding, Basil O’Connor and his medical advisors became more amenable to the possibility of gamma globulin as a stopgap measure until an effective vaccine could be developed. As Mawdsley notes, they agreed to conduct “a large controlled experiment on an open population of healthy children,” something that “had never been attempted before” (p. 55). Expecting some resistance from concerned parents, Hammon and the foundation sought out tight-knit, homogeneous communities like Sioux City, Iowa, where people knew each other, thought alike, and put great trust in their [End Page 821] family doctors, whom the foundation cultivated with great care. The experiment was double-blind, with neither the child nor the caregiver knowing who got the gamma globulin and who got the look-alike placebo. Intense preparation—the hallmark of the foundation’s well-oiled public relations machine—convinced these communities that the experiment was perfectly safe, and that its benefits extended not only to their offspring but to children everywhere.
The national gamma globulin experiment of 1953 produced negligible results. Polio raged at a record pace that year, and gamma globulin provided no measurable protection to those who received it. The trials were soon forgotten, as was the man who stood behind them: William McDowall Hammon. But his shadow looms large in scientific exploration, as Mawdsley’s perceptive account makes clear. Hammon’s experiment became the playbook for the...