The daughter of two accomplished biologists (her father won a Nobel Prize in 1933), Dr. Isabel Morgan was an early and important player in the race to find a polio vaccine. “Isabel Morgan is really one of the unsung heroes of the polio fight,” says author David Oshinsky. “She was a brilliant researcher.”
The Killer-Virus Vaccine
After earning a PhD in bacteriology, Morgan worked at the Rockefeller Institute for six years before moving to a top-notch lab at Johns Hopkins in 1944. There, with March of Dimes funding, her team strove to immunize monkeys against polio. At the time, most other prominent virologists believed a vaccine could only be achieved using a live virus, but Morgan thought otherwise. After five years of work, her team became the first to successfully inoculate monkeys with a killed-virus vaccine.
After the War
Morgan’s research looked incredibly promising to those hoping for a human vaccine, but in 1949, at the height of her career, Morgan surprised the scientific community by leaving polio research behind forever. Morgan reportedly told friends that she quit the field because she was afraid of the next step: testing the vaccine on human children. Like many American women in the years after World War II, much of her energy went into being a homemaker for her husband and stepson. In Morgan’s case, this may have been a serious blow to the scientific community. “She was probably a year or two ahead of Jonas Salk in the race for a vaccine,” says Oshinsky. “Had she stayed the course, there’s a good chance today we’d be talking about the Morgan vaccine and not the Salk vaccine.”
Dr. Morgan spent the following years as a homemaker and stepmother, also working for 11 years at the Westchester County Department of Laboratory Research. After her stepson died in a plane crash in 1960, Dr. Morgan earned a masters degree in biostatistics and consulted at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute in New York City. She died in 1996.
“The important thing to remember about her is that the science of polio was the science of building blocks,” says Oshinsky. “It wasn’t just Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin… Other people did so much of the research that these two scientists built upon.”