In the summers of the early 1950s, multitudes of American children were stuck in their home. Parents didn’t permit them to play together because, when the weather got warm, society entered a nightmare called polio. Children would eagerly begin their school breaks with a bicycle, scooter or kite and end them in crutches, braces or an iron lung.
The disease poliomyelitis, or polio, had been in the medical textbooks for decades. In the summers of the early 20th century, however, this illness grew into an epidemic. The virus behind the disease could infect anyone, but in the U.S., it caused the worst damage among children under five years old, and polio was consequently called infantile paralysis.
In early 1953 there was a glimmer of hope that this nightmare might come to an end. Medical researcher Jonas Salk created a polio vaccine that, when injected, stimulated the immune system to make antibodies that fought off the virus. By January of that year, he had inoculated 161 people, and the results looked promising. Salk’s work was funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP). This organization—founded in 1938 by polio sufferer and U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt—evolved from a dilapidated spa in Warm Springs, Ga., for those afflicted with the disease to become a major polio research funder. Buoyed by Salk’s early results, the NFIP, with its broad mission of conquering polio, started pushing to get hundreds of thousands of children vaccinated. But before moving ahead, Salk wanted to make sure his vaccine was the “safest and most certain” approach by monitoring the inoculation’s ability to trigger enough antibodies to neutralize the virus. In earlier tests, monkeys were injected with the vaccine and monitored to see if they got sick, or their cells were observed to see if they deformed. But the number of the animals needed to test thousands of children was too costly and cumbersome.
Fortunately, researchers had found there were unique cells that could help. These were HeLa cells, the living line of cancer cells that were taken without permission from a Black patient named Henrietta Lacks years earlier. After blood was drawn from a vaccinated patient, part of it was placed in a glass dish along with HeLa cells and a small dose of polio. With those items, a microscopic—and deadly—battle commenced. In the dish, the poliovirus tried to attack the HeLa cells. If there were enough of the proper antibodies in the patient’s blood, however, they blocked the virus from causing any harm. Scientists could readily see the cells under a microscope. If the HeLa cells looked misshapen, this meant that the right antibodies were not present in the blood.
To evaluate his vaccine, Salk would need tremendous amounts of HeLa cells. He would get help not from traditional established institutions such as Harvard University or Yale University but from a small Black college in the South that had become famous for cultivating peanuts.
In 1881 educator Booker T. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute with 30 pupils inside an old church building in Alabama. Washington had big dreams for his small school, and they were realized. Just 50 years later, the number of students increased 100-fold. And the entire nation grew to know about this institute from botanist George Washington Carver’s pioneering work on cultivating the peanut there. During World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-Black flying squadron, also put this sleepy part of the country on the map.
The NFIP had an old relationship with the Tuskegee Institute. In the 1940s, the NFIP funded the Tuskegee Infantile Paralysis Center, which not only supported the treatment of Black polio sufferers but also trained Black medical personnel for work back in their communities. This medical facility was one of the few polio centers that treated Black children because American hospitals were segregated. Even FDR’s Warm Springs did not accept Black patients. In October 1952, looking ahead to polio vaccine testing, the NFIP’s director of research, Harry Weaver, asked Russell W. Brown, director of the Carver Research Foundation at the Tuskegee Institute, to turn its halls into the world’s first HeLa cell factory. Brown, who had a doctorate in bacterial physiology, was designated as the director of the project, and James (Jimmy) Henderson, a plant physiologist, assisted him. These Black men were asked to serve humanity in a time when their humanity was often denied. Not far from them, the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment was underway.
Both Brown and Henderson were solid scientists, but growing, storing and maintaining HeLa cells had not been part of their technical training. That kind of expertise lay in a burgeoning field called tissue culture. Salk’s proposed vaccine trial would require 10,000 glass tubes of HeLa cells every week from Tuskegee. William F. Scherer, a young postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota, who did early work on the poliovirus using HeLa cells, had instructed students on this topic. He agreed to provide Brown and Henderson the skills they needed. So on January 16, 1953, Brown and Henderson boarded a train in Alabama. And on January 18, 1953, they arrived in the frigid cold of Minnesota on their new mission.
In the 1950s, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minn., were segregated. Finding campus housing for these two Black men in 1953 was not effortless, particularly because the university’s dorms were still new to allowing Black occupants. Rooms were made available near the edge of campus, making the walk to their lab in the brutal weather quite unpleasant. These two Black scientists found their Midwestern hosts to be hospitable, however. Under the Minnesota stars, Brown and Henderson learned the basics of cell and tissue culture and designed their Tuskegee laboratory, preparing for the renovations that would begin when they returned. They needed to be quick studies: Brown stayed in Minnesota for four weeks and Henderson stayed for two. Both were back in Alabama by February 1953.
In April 1953 Scherer headed south to Tuskegee to see the new facility and deliver a precious package. His parcel held contents that were sensitive to temperature swings, and April was one of the few times when Minnesota and Alabama had matching climates. While others on Scherer’s airplane drank cocktails (stopping as they flew over dry states), his mind was also on a bottle—the bottle in his carry-on bag. It contained approximately 30 million HeLa cells. When he arrived at the Tuskegee Institute, a liquid was added to those cells, which then fed 40 other bottles. After four days of incubation, each of these bottles contained 30 million more cells, marking the birth of the HeLa cell factory at the Tuskegee Institute.
Inside the Tuskegee HeLa cell factory, cells were grown in a long line of incubators, measured into glass tubes, packaged and then shipped by air to about two dozen medical laboratories all over the country. Tuskegee’s mission was difficult for any school, particularly for a small, underfunded one located in the hot South. HeLa cells died when temperatures broiled around 105 degrees Fahrenheit. While air-conditioning had made the Sunbelt bearable and led to a migration to the South in the 1920s, these sensitive cells were doomed if they traveled in hot cars, waited on hot tarmacs or sat in hot airplane cargo hulls. So the leadership of the NFIP asked Maria Telkes, a physical chemist at New York University, to come up with a packaging solution to keep the cells cool while in transit. Telkes, an expert on thermal insulation, calculated and designed a special shipping container that resembled a Russian doll. In it, a box covered with insulation sat inside of another box. The inner box contained a can full of the chemical sodium sulfate decahydrate, which rested on top of the glass tubes and kept the cells from overheating. Once placed in these boxes, the cells had to arrive at their destination within 96 hours. One person drove to airports in Montgomery, Ala., and Columbus, Ga., to make sure that these packages did not miss their flights.
There were many failures in getting the HeLa process right and calls and letters from NFIP officials berated Brown about contaminated samples, low cell output and the arrival of dead cells. Brown, too, was troubled. “The picture at present is distinctly unfavorable,” he wrote to the leaders of the NFIP in December 1953. But Norma Gaillard, the cell culture supervisor at Tuskegee, kept making improvements and devised an effective procedure that her technicians followed precisely. The team vigorously hunted down the sources of contamination and installed special air conditioners to keep the lab cool and remove the last vestige of dust and humidity. With time and effort, the technicians eventually exceeded the 10,000 glass tubes of HeLa cells needed to be shipped in a week. By early 1954 the HeLa cell factory was ready to be part of the world’s biggest experiment. It was a good thing, too, because summer—and polio season—was coming.
On April 26, 1954, the field trial for Salk’s polio vaccine began. This trial was a medical logistics effort on a scale never seen before. The NFIP employed several drug companies to manufacture the vaccine and also mobilized armies of 20,000 doctors, 40,000 nurses, 1,000 public health professionals, 14,000 school principals, 50,000 teachers and 200,000 volunteers to administer the injections. Overall, nearly 420,000 children were inoculated, and 200,000 were given placebo injections, with an additional 1.2 million other children observed in the study.
Within this huge health campaign was an astronomical number of HeLa cells, which resided inside the 400,000 glass tubes dispatched from a quiet corner of the South. These cells, originating from a Black woman and cultivated by Black scientists, made visible the effectiveness of a long-awaited protection against polio. Ultimately, Thomas Francis, Jr., director of the Poliomyelitis Vaccine Evaluation Center at the University of Michigan, announced on April 12, 1955, that the vaccine was “safe, effective and potent.”
The inoculation was approved for distribution, cases of the disease began to drop, and Salk went on to become a national hero. But the role of the Tuskegee Institute and its researchers remained hidden long after the fear of polio faded from the nation’s memory.