These Two Black Scientists Helped Prove The Polio Vaccine Worked

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In a new report, two Black scientists, Russell W. Brown and James H.M. Henderson, are getting well-deserved recognition for helping prove the vaccine against polio was safe and effective in children, and ultimately helping eradicate the disease from the nation. 

During the early 20th century, the polio epidemic affected hundreds of thousands of Americans, mostly children, many of whom were forced to remain indoors and away from one another because of fear of spreading the virus. It wasn’t until 1953 when a medical researcher by the name of Jonas Salk developed a vaccine that could provide protection against the virus that the nation started to have hope. 

Through funding by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP), founded in 1938 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who himself suffered from polio, Salk was able to inoculate 161 people with promising results. The foundation wanted to get the masses vaccinated, but Salk wanted to do so safely. Unfortunately, the cost to inject the experimental vaccine into test animals was too high. Thanks to Brown and Henderson, two Black scientists at Tuskegee Institute, a cost- and time-efficient test was developed to determine the effectiveness of Salk’s vaccine. 

Using HeLa cells –– the cancer cells taken without permission from a Black woman, Henrietta Lacks years prior –– Brown and Henderson were able to prove the vaccine worked. They took the blood from a vaccinated patient, combined it with HeLa cells and a small amount of polio in a dish. From there Brown and Henderson showed that the patient’s blood had developed enough antibodies to fight against the virus. 

According to Scientific American, the NFIP had previously established a working relationship with Tuskegee researchers, helping fund their own Infantile Paralysis Center since American hospitals were segregated. These Black men began working on the vaccine test at a critical time for the health of the nation, even when their own health and humanity were often denied. Not too far away from Brown and Henderson’s research institute, the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study was being conducted. 

After a long journey to growing and maintaining enough HeLa cells for trials, the polio vaccine was declared safe and effective for use in 1955 and helped slow the spread of the virus. Since 1979, no cases of polio have originated from inside of the US

In recognizing the work of Brown and Henderson, is recognizing their work would not have been possible without the use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells. 

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