On this, the second anniversary of the COVID outbreak, Canadians look to the end of the pandemic thanks to the massive rollout of vaccine. Also, as it is the week of International Women’s Day, it’s appropriate to take a look back at Canada’s other major mass inoculation—the polo vaccine in the mid to late 1950’s and the critical role played by a Canadian woman.
Canada played a significant role in the battle against polio thanks to a team of researchers at what was then Connaught Laboratories in Canada. Connaught Labs, was established at the University of Toronto in 1914 as a research facility, initially looking into vaccines for diphtheria. During WWI it started producing tetanus vaccines for Canadian soldiers and at the end of the war, with the outbreak of Spanish Flu, Connaught stated making experimental vaccines for that pandemic. Connaught rose to international prominence in the 1920’s with the discovery of insulin. It is one thing to produce a vaccine in a test tube, but it is a major task to move to mass production. By 1922 Connaught had developed mass production techniques and in addition, started to license the process to pharmaceutical manufacturers around the world. Through the 1930’s and the war years Connaught was involved in the development and production of many other medical products—heparin, penicillin and typhus vaccine.
In the 1950’s Polio was a major health scourge killing and crippling thousands of children. Many scientists were looking for a vaccine when Dr. Jonas Salk, a Pittsburgh researcher, had developed a vaccine taken from the kidneys of monkeys. Once again, as with insulin, the task was to figure out a way of mass-producing the vaccine. Salk had only been able to produce a few grams in test tubes.
A key player in solving this riddle was a Connaught researcher Dr. Clarice Leona Norwood Farrell. who led a team of scientists at Connaught. She had discovered that applying a rocking motion to bottles of the virus stimulated its growth, using monkey kidney cells and a synthetic nutrient base developed by Connaught in the 1940s. The practice became known as the “Toronto Method” and was used in the production of polio vaccine into the late 1970’s. After developing the Toronto Method Farrell was in charge of all of the elements of mass production, including sourcing 200 monkeys needed to produce the vaccine. Through her efforts Connaught was able to ship 2 million doses of polio vaccine to be used in the biggest field trial ever.
It is interesting to note that such was the urgency of distributing the polio vaccine, that then, as now with COVID, the widespread production of the vaccine took place before it had received formal clinical approval in order to have large quantities available quickly.
Salk himself called it a “herculean” accomplishment and travelled to Toronto to thank Connaught scientists. The reception for the scientists was organized to be held in a room where only men were allowed, but Salk insisted on meeting Farrell and other female scientists involved in the project. So it was worked out that the ladies could stand at the doorway of the reception room to be introduced to Dr. Salk.
Not much is known about Dr. Farrell. She was born in Stormont County, the daughter of a general store merchant. The Family moved to Toronto some time around 1910. She attended Parkdale Collegiate Institute, earning academic prizes in English and history and a science scholarship. She completed her MA on the chemistry of fermentation in 1929 at the University of Toronto. She obtained a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Toronto in 1933, which was rare for women at the time. During the 1920’s her name appears in the society columns, attending teas and the like. She never married and retired at age 65. She died at age 82 suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Her accomplishments went largely unrecognized until 2005, when a Toronto Star reporter wrote a feature on Dr. Farrells life. She had been buried in an unmarked grave, and after the publicity a stone was erected and a plaque unveiled at the original Connaught site on Spadina Avenue in Toronto.
As for Connaught Labs, it was taken over by the Canada Development Corporation, who did a poor job of managing the facility. It is now owned by Sanofi Pasteur Limited, a major global pharmaceutical company employing more than 2,000 people at its Toronto plant.