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 immediacy has defanged our towering horror of the disease somewhat – we realize that all of these are terrible, but they don’t seem quite real precisely because we have such a firm grip on the peripherals and paraphernalia involved.  It’s 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 didn’t 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 1920s until the late fifties.



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 fifties 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.

From 1945 to 1949, Isabel Morgan worked at Johns Hopkins 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 don’t spring back into virulence the same way that even the most skillfully weakened ones have a habit of doing.  The problem was that nobody believed in the effectiveness of killed viruses as a stimulant to the immune system.

And 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 didn’t.  The principle of the killed virus vaccine had been proven.

And then a man came along and asked Isabel to marry him, and she did, dropping her research to start a life with him, caring for his handicapped child of a former marriage and his household while taking what satisfaction she could in the meager scientific facilities available to her in her new environs.  It takes pretty significant resources to carry out research in polio – the expense of the primates and their keeping alone were daunting to all but the best financed labs, and Westchester was decidedly not one of those.

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 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, weren’t 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 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.

We’ll never know if Morgan might have shaved a year or two off America’s struggle with polio.  We do know that she was paid less than her colleagues, and was expected to give up her life’s work to follow her husband as a matter of course, and that she never complained about trading a life of public service for one of private satisfaction.  But then again, some things you feel too deeply to say, and it’s hard to imagine Isabel watching the mounting fatalities during the great outbreak of 1952 without feeling a profound inner remorse at being so far removed from a position to do anything about it.

People talk of “different times” when lives were surrendered happily for the sake of social expectations, and point to the shimmering silence of the sacrificed as evidence of a fundamental okayness to it all, accusing those who argue against them of anachronism.  That Isabel Morgan lived and researched and discovered we can celebrate.  That her career was cut short we can lament.  But that she stayed quiet ever after doesn’t mean we have to declare “It all worked out right in the end” before moving on.


As to the apes and monkeys, well, they deserve a bit of mention too.  Salk’s job before coming up with the vaccine was to type the different strains of polio, to see how many there were before any vaccine could possibly be created.  The process was a laborious grind that required a steady stream of imported monkeys who were infected, destroyed, and dissected in dizzying numbers.  It’s a tough ethical issue to wrap justification around.  I’ve tried.  But in the absence of definitive statements, a small recognition of what was done, and what people needed to overcome in themselves to be able to do it, is a start.


Further Reading: Because Morgan’s career was cut short, you’ll pretty much only find her in larger books about Polio, of which a deservedly revered one is David Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story.  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’s something in there for everybody.


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