A Woman to Know: Isabel Morgan

Isabel Morgan is really one of the unsung heroes of the polio fight. — David Oshinsky

Isabel Morgan is really one of the unsung heroes of the polio fight. — David Oshinsky

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1938, Isabel Morgan joined the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. At just 27, the Stanford graduate had already made considerable headway on her own work in bacteriology. She’d written her doctoral thesis on viral diseases like encephalitis and polio.

In 1944, Johns Hopkins tasked Isabel and an elite group of virologists with researching immunization. With the help of March of Dimes funding, Isabel tested her own theory about polio immunity: unlike other researchers, she believed she could work with a killed-virus vaccine rather than a live virus vaccine.

In 1949, Isabel’s theory proved right when she successfully inoculated lab monkeys with her killed-virus vaccine. The Johns Hopkins community celebrated the discovery, but the next move shocked them: Isabel announced she was leaving the lab.

Historians still aren’t sure why Isabel abandoned her research career. Some friends say she told them the next step — testing the vaccine on live humans — terrified her. Others say after her Air Force Colonel husband returned from fighting in World War II, Isabel wanted to devote her full attention to building a comfortable home.

Isabel never returned to the polio lab. In 1955, when Jonas Salk announced his successful polio vaccine, she was working part-time at the Westchester County Department of Laboratory Research.

As historian David Oshinsky later wrote:

She was probably a year or two ahead of Jonas Salk in the race for a vaccine. Had she stayed the course, there’s a good chance today we’d be talking about the Morgan vaccine and not the Salk vaccine … The important thing to remember about her is that the science of polio was the science of building blocks. It wasn’t just Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Other people did so much of the research that these two scientists built upon.

After her stepson died in a plane crash in 1960, she studied at Columbia University, eventually earning a master’s degree in biostatistics and working as a consultant at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute.

She died in 1996, just two days before her 85th birthday.

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