By Harriet P. Gross
In the American mid-century, the summertime was the dreaded season of polio. We Jews are rightfully proud that two doctors of our own, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, made that crippling disease virtually obsolete. No more iron lungs, leg braces, swimming pool closures, parents frantic with worry even when they kept their children at home, away from anyone and everyone else. Safety was nowhere.
But there was another doctor, also Jewish, whose work preceded those famous others. Hilary Koprowski was the man who first proved that an oral vaccine was possible.
Dr. Koprowski, born in 1906, fled Poland when the Nazis came and wound up in Philadelphia. A man of many talents, he had earned two prestigious college degrees, simultaneously, graduating from both Warsaw University as a doctor and from Warsaw Conservatory as a concert pianist. His biographer, Roger Vaughan noted that he was also fluent in seven languages.
But Dr. Koprowski’s most remarkable achievement came in 1948, when he took live polio virus, spun it with rat brain in an ordinary blender — and drank this “cocktail” himself!
In his book “Polio: An American Story,” David Oshinsky writes that “Koprowski’s was the first serious scientific attempt at a live-virus polio vaccine. Jonas Salk is a god in America. Albert Sabin’s got a ton of publicity. And Hilary Koprowski, who really should be part of that trinity, is the forgotten man.”
The Salk vaccine, given by injection, was made from killed polio virus. The Sabin vaccine, the more effective oral one given today, is made from live virus, which Koprowski was the first to prove a possibility. His vaccine succeded overseas but was never approved for United States use, which is why his name has remained virtually unknown here, according to Margalit Fox of The New York Times, who wrote Dr. Koprowski’s obituary. Of the three polio “greats,” the man with the least fame lived the longest: Sabin passed away in 1993 and Salk in 1995, but the true inventor of the vaccine that has prevented so much suffering and saved so many lives was with us until last year. Koprowski was 96 when he died April 11, 2013.
When I was a youngster, the boy next door had polio. He was one of the “lucky” ones who recovered with virtually no residual signs of the illness. Not then, at least. Always remembering our neighbor, my father, who was a physician, took the first Salk vaccine he was able to get and set up a little stand on the sidewalk outside his office, buttonholing parents passing by with their children and persuading them to let him give those kids the brand-new polio shots at no charge.
Someone my age, someone who lived through those polio seasons himself, has written an incredible novel based on ordinary, middle-class Jews in Newark, New Jersey, during the disastrous summer of 1944. You may not like his “Portnoy’s Complaint,” but Philip Roth’s “Nemesis” should be required reading for everyone interested in this history. It was a time of war, a time without air conditioning, a time of fear and of sorrow, and Roth captures it all. His story’s “hero” is Bucky Cantor, whose poor eyesight kept him from going off to fight the Germans. The lesson learned: “How powerless each of us is, up against the force of circumstance.” And the question: “Where does God figure in this?”
Hilary Koprowski’s work was recognized by France with its coveted Legion of Honor. Bucky Cantor became Philip Roth’s prime victim of that polio summer. And when I last was back visiting my childhood home, I saw my former next-door neighbor, the boy who had been one of the “lucky ones” way back when. He is now an old man with a pronounced, distinctive limp, the post-polio syndrome that is a badge of honor for those who survived that terrible disease during those terrible mid-century summers.