Tag Archives: Second World War

Hilary Koprowski: Genesis of a Virologist

Several years before Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin developed their famous polio vaccines, Hilary Koprowski (1916-2013) in fact developed the world’s first effective, but much less well known polio vaccine (1, 2). Koprowski’s vaccine was used world-wide, but it was never licensed in the United States, ultimately losing out to Sabin’s vaccine.

Koprowski’s reputation was tarnished in 1950, when he tested his live polio vaccine on 20 children at Letchworth Village for mentally disabled children, in Rockland County, NY; an episode recounted in a recent posting Vaccine Research Using Children (1). Koprowski reported on the Letchworth Village trials at a 1951 conference of major polio researchers. Although his vaccine induced immunity in the children, and caused no ill effects, many scientists in the audience were horrified that he actually tested a live polio vaccine in human children. Afterwards, Sabin shouted at him: “Why did you do it? Why? Why?”

Although Koprowski’s polio vaccine was supplanted by the Salk and Sabin vaccines, his demonstration, that a live polio vaccine could be safe and effective, paved the way for Sabin to develop his live polio vaccine. Moreover, Sabin developed his vaccine from a sample of attenuated poliovirus that he received from Koprowski.

There is much more to tell about Koprowski. This posting relates some of the remarkable earlier events of his life, including his harrowing escape from Poland on the eve of the Second World War; a flight which inadvertently led to his career in virology. A subsequent posting will recount the now discredited, although sensational at the time, accusation that Koprowski’s polio vaccine gave rise to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Koprowski was born and grew up in Warsaw, where he earned a medical degree from Warsaw University in 1939. He also was an accomplished pianist, having studied piano from the age of 12 at the prestigious Warsaw Conservatory, where Chopin is said to have studied. Koprowski eventually earned a music degree from the Conservatory. He recalled, “…the first year I was the youngest and voted second best in the class (3).”


Hilary Koprowski in Warsaw (2007)

In 1938, while Koprowski was in medical school, he married classmate Irena Grasberg who, in later years, would wonder how they had found the time for their courtship. Each had to contend with a demanding medical school program, while Hilary’s piano studies at the Conservatory was a full time program in itself (3). Irena recalled a day before both of them had an anatomy exam, and Hilary had an important recital. Hilary practiced a recital piece, while simultaneously studying a chart on the music rack showing the bones of the hand; all the while as Irena read anatomy to him.

Koprowski eventually chose a career in medicine, rather than one in music. As he explained: “…the top of the music pyramid is much narrower than that of medicine, where there is more space for successful scientists (3).” Koprowski rated himself only fourth best in his class at the Warsaw Conservatory, and he needed to excel. Yet he may have underrated himself. His piano professor at the Conservatory was “greatly disappointed” when he chose to enter medicine (3). [After the 1944 Warsaw uprising, Koprowski’s piano professor was arrested and beaten to death by German soldiers (see below and 3).] In any case, Koprowski continued to play the piano, and he even did some composing in his later years.

Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, setting off the Second World War. As German bombs were falling on Warsaw, Koprowski answered the call for Polish men to go east, where Polish forces were organizing to resist the Germans. Irena, now pregnant, and Hilary’s mother went with him, while his father chose to remain behind. They made their way in a horse-drawn hay wagon, traveling at night to avoid German planes that were strafing the roads during the day. After a week or so on the road, they encountered refugees moving in the opposite direction. Those refugees told them that Russia had signed a pact with Germany and was now invading Poland from the east (Aside 1). So the three Koprowskis joined the flood of refugees moving to the east. When they arrived back in Warsaw, they found the city in ruins. Many of their friends and neighbors had been killed or were seriously wounded, and the city was occupied by German soldiers.

[Aside 1: The German–Soviet Non-aggression Pact was signed in Moscow in August 1939, as a guarantee of non-belligerence between Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union. Hitler broke the pact in June 1941 when Germany attacked Soviet positions in eastern Poland. Hitler had no intention of keeping to the pact. However, it temporarily enabled him to avoid having to fight a war on two fronts—against Britain and France in the west and the Soviet Union in the east.]

Once Germany had conquered Poland, German and Polish Jews began to be sent to concentration camps set up in Poland. The Koprowskis, who were Jewish (Salk and Sabin too were descendants of eastern European Jews), quickly made plans to leave Poland. Their first destination was to be Rome. Hilary’s father went there first to arrange living conditions for the family. To facilitate the escape of Hilary’s father from Poland, Hilary and Irena wrapped him in bandages, hoping that the authorities might gladly believe they were letting a very frail individual depart from the country.

Hilary, Irena, and Hilary’s mother then traveled by train from Warsaw to Rome. It was a harrowing trip. Irena was pregnant, and the Gestapo was roaming the trains. They feared that they might have been arrested at any time.

In Rome, the Koprowski family’s main concern was the safety of Irena and her unborn baby. Since Irena had an aunt in Paris, who would know of a good doctor there, the family thought that Paris would be a safe place for the baby to be born. Thus, Irena left for Paris, accompanied by Hilary’s father. She gave birth to Claude five days after arriving there.

Hilary did not go with Irena to France. If he had done so, he would have been impressed immediately into the Polish Army that was forming there to fight the Germans. Yet he knew that he would eventually have to leave Rome. Italy, under Mussolini’s leadership, was poised to enter the Second World War, as an Axis partner of Hitler’s Germany.

After Claude was born, Irena worked as a physician at a psychiatric hospital in Villejuif, just outside of Paris. She was the sole internist there for eight hundred patients. She kept Claude at the hospital, in a locked room, which she would slip to away every three hours to nurse him.

Back in Rome, Hilary continued to play the piano. In fact, he auditioned for, and was accepted by Rome’s L’Accademia di Santa Cecilia, which awarded him a second degree in music. Importantly, his skill at the keyboard enabled him to get visas for himself and his mother to enter Brazil, which the family hoped would be a safe haven. The best students from L’Accademia di Santa Cecilia were often in demand to play for events at the Brazilian embassy in Rome. Thus, on several occasions, Hilary played the piano at the embassy. Brazil’s consul general admired Hilary’s pianism and was pleased to arrange Brazilian entry visas for Hilary and his mother. See Aside 2.

[Aside 2: The day after Hilary arrived in Rome, he volunteered to serve as a medical examiner for a Polish draft board that was set up in the Polish embassy. The draft board’s activity at the embassy—recruiting Poles for the Polish Army—violated diplomatic protocol. In addition, Italy would soon be Germany’s Axis partner in the War. Moreover, Brazil, though neutral in the War, favored the Axis.]

Hilary and his mother had been making plans to leave Italy. Their destination was to be Spain, where they hoped they might unite with Irena, Claude, and Hilary’s father.  From Spain, the family might then go to Portugal, where they could get a boat to Brazil. But, on the very day that Hilary and his mother were to leave Italy, Mussolini issued a proclamation banning any male of military age from leaving the country. So it happened that Hilary’s escape from Italy was blocked at the boat registration. However, his mother rose to the occasion, crying and pleading with the boat registration official that she was sick, that Hilary was her sole means of support, and that she could not go on without him. “The man looked at his watch and said he must go to lunch. He looked at us and said, ‘If the boat leaves before I return, that’s my bad luck (3).’” So, Hilary and his mother boarded the boat, which left before the official returned. [Hilary’s mother was a well-educated woman, and a dentist by profession.]

In Spain, Hilary and his mother stayed at a hotel in Barcelona. Despite the wartime conditions, they were able to communicate, if only sporadically, with Irena and Hilary’s father, who were still in France. Then, after Germany invaded France in 1940, Irena, Claude, and Hilary’s father reunited with Hilary and his mother in Barcelona. [The escape of Irena, Claude, and Hilary’s father from France was far more harrowing than the escape of Hilary and his mother from Italy (See 3 for details).]

The family now needed to get to Portugal, where they could then get a boat to Brazil. Irena had already obtained Portuguese visas for herself and for Claude. But Hilary and his mother only had visas for Brazil. Hilary’s applications for visas at the Portuguese embassy were repeatedly denied, until a fellow Pole at Hilary’s Barcelona hotel advised him of the obligatory bribe that must accompany visa applications. The advice was right-on, and the family (minus Hilary’s father, who chose to go to England) sailed for Brazil without further incident.

In Brazil, Irena found work in Rio de Janeiro as a nurse. But she soon managed to secure a position as a pathologist at the largest hospital in the city. Hilary, on the other hand, could not find a job in medicine and, so, he turned to teaching piano. After six months of teaching unenthusiastic piano students, Hilary by chance recognized a man on the street in Rio who happened to be a former schoolmate from Warsaw. The man also happened to be working at the Rockefeller Foundation’s outpost in Rio. He told Hilary that the Foundation was looking for people, and he also told Hilary who he should contact there. Hilary interviewed at the Foundation the next day, and was told to report for work the day after that.

The Foundation assigned Hilary to research how well, and for how long the attenuated yellow fever vaccine—developed by Nobel laureate Max Theiler in 1935 (4) —might protect against yellow fever. The disease was endemic in Brazil, and it was actually the Rockefeller Foundation’s first priority.

Hilary’s supervisor at the Foundation was Edwin Lennette; a staff member of the International Health Division of the Rockefeller Foundation, assigned to its Brazilian outpost, specifically because of his interest in yellow fever. In 1944, Lennette would be reassigned to the Rockefeller Foundation laboratory in Berkeley, California, where he would establish the first diagnostic virology laboratory in the United States. Indeed, Lennette is known as one of the founders of diagnostic virology. But, in Brazil, he introduced Hilary Koprowski to virology.

Hilary’s apprenticeship under Lennette was going very well. It would result in nine papers—published between 1944 and 1946— that Hilary would co-author with Lennette. Moreover, Lennette was interested in other viruses, in addition to yellow fever. Thus, their co-authored papers included studies of Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus, Japanese encephalitis virus, St. Louis encephalitis virus, and West Nile virus, as well as yellow fever.

Most importantly, Koprowski’s work under Lennette introduced him to Max Theiler’s methods and approach to viral attenuation. In brief, Theiler found that propagating yellow fever virus in an unnatural host—chick embryos—caused the virus to adapt to that host, thereby reducing its capacity to cause disease in humans.  Koprowski would later acknowledge that Theiler provided him with a “most encouraging model” for attenuating poliovirus. [Koprowski attenuated poliovirus by propagating it first in mice and then in rats. Recall that Sabin developed his live polio vaccine from attenuated poliovirus that he received from Koprowski (1).] See Asides 3 and 4.

[Aside 3: The rabies vaccine, which Louis Pasteur developed in 1885, is often referred to as the first attenuated virus vaccine. Nevertheless, while Pasteur did passage his vaccine virus in rabbit spinal cords, the virus may have been killed when the spinal cords were later dried for up to fourteen days. Also, in Pasteur’s day, nothing was known about immunity or mutation, and viruses had not yet been identified as microbes distinct from bacteria. The yellow fever vaccine developed by Max Theiler at the Rockefeller Institute (now University) in New York may have been the first deliberately attenuated viral vaccine.]

[Aside 4: Koprowski and Lennette were among the first researchers to observe that infection by one virus (yellow fever, in this instance) might inhibit the growth of another unrelated virus (West Nile virus, in this instance). That is, they had inadvertently detected what later would be known as interferon. Yet while they looked for an anti-viral substance in their tissue culture media, and while their results suggest that it actually was there, they stated in their summary that nonspecific anti-viral factors were not present (5). Koprowski and Lennette collaborated again in the 1970s; this time to investigate subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, a rare late complication of measles infection that results in neurodegeneration.]

Hilary continued to give piano recitals in Brazil, regretting only that he did not have time to practice the piano as much as he would have liked. Nonetheless, his piano playing expanded his circle of friends to include musicians, artists and writers, in addition to his fellow scientists. Moreover, Irena was satisfied with her medical practice, and with the many friends and rich social life that she and Hilary had in Brazil.

Earlier, in 1940, while Hilary was still in Rome, and expecting that the family would soon have to leave Europe, he believed that the United States would likely be the best destination for them. Thus, he applied to the United States for visas. He had nearly forgotten those applications when, in 1944, their numbers came up.

The Koprowski family now faced somewhat of a dilemma. It was happily settled in Brazil, and had no prospects in the United States. On the other hand, the Rockefeller Foundation’s yellow fever project was drawing to a close, and the Foundation was planning to leave Rio. Importantly, coming to America was now a “dream come true (3)”.  So, in December 1944, the Koprowskis boarded an aging steamer in Brazil, and sailed under wartime blackout conditions, through German submarine-infested waters, for New York City.

During Hilary’s his first days in America, he used the Rockefeller Institute library in Manhattan to work on manuscripts reporting his research in Brazil. During one of his visits to the Rockefeller, he happened to meet Peter Olitzky (Aside 5), an early polio researcher there, who arranged for Hilary to meet Harold Cox, the director of the virology department at Lederle Laboratories, in Pearl River, New York.  Hilary interviewed with Cox, who offered him a research position at Lederle, which Hilary accepted. Meanwhile, Irena was appointed an assistant pathologist at Cornell Medical College in Manhattan.

[Aside 5: In 1936, Olitzky and Sabin collaborated on a study at the Rockefeller Institute, which, although carefully done, wrongly concluded that poliovirus could attack nerve cells only; a result that did not bode well for the development of an attenuated polio vaccine.]

At Lederle, Hilary began the experiments that led to the world’s first successful polio vaccine. In 1950 he tested the live vaccine in eighteen mentally disabled children at Letchworth Village (1). None of these children had antibodies against poliovirus before he vaccinated them, but each of them was producing poliovirus antibodies after receiving the vaccine. Importantly, none of the children suffered ill effects. What’s more, Koprowski did not initiate the test. Rather, a Letchworth Village physician, fearing an outbreak of polio at the facility, came to Koprowski’s office at Lederle, requesting that Koprowski vaccinate the Letchworth children (1).



  1. Vaccine Research Using Children, Posted on the blog July 7, 2016.
  2. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin: One of the Great Rivalries of Medical Science, Posed on the blog March 27, 2014.
  3. Roger Vaughan, Listen to the Music: The Life of Hilary Koprowski. Springer-Verlag, 2000.
  4. The Struggle Against Yellow Fever: Featuring Walter Reed and Max Theiler, Posted on the blog May 13, 4014.
  5. Lennette EH, Koprowski H., 1946. Interference between viruses in tissue culture, Journal of Experimental Medicine, 83:195–219.