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Today in History: Polio Vaccine unveiled. Canadian woman played a key role

Dr. Leone Farrell (courtesy Sanofi Pasteur Canada Archives, Connaught Campus)
Dr. Jonas Salk

On This day in 1953, American medical researcher Dr. Jonas Salk announced that he had successfully tested a vaccine against polio. The year before the announcement there had been  58,000 new cases reported in the United States, and more than 3,000 died from the disease.

While Salk had discovered a cure for polio, he had not come up with a way to mass produce it. That is where Canada entered the scene.  Leone Farrell, a woman working at Connaught Labs as a researcher, who had gained experience with the mass production of insulin, invented a mechanical device called a “rocking machine.” The stimulation from the motion allowed Salk’s polio vaccine to grow quickly and reproduce as the bottles were gently agitated. Dr. Farrell’s equipment is now on display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Farrell with the agitation equipment that aided in the mass production of polio vaccine (courtesy Sanofi Pasteur Canada Archives, Connaught Campus)

Connaught’s capacity had to be ramped up to prepare about 3,000 litres of poliovirus fluids for conversion into vaccine in time for the Salk vaccine field trial. This “Herculean task,” as Salk later characterized it, depended on all of Farrell’s scientific and leadership skills. Space was needed, rocking machines had to be custom built and masses of equipment had to be acquired. She had to hire and carefully train many qualified people for this delicate and potentially dangerous work. Miraculously, as Farrell later wrote, there were no poliovirus infections among the large staff involved, although, she says, “I believe everyone thought at least once that they had contracted the disease.”

One would like to think that Dr. Farrell’s pivotal role in the mass production of the Salk Vaccine was recognized appropriately during her lifetime, but such was not the case. A 1955 Globe and Mail photo layout celebrating the breakthrough, shows a thumbnail picture of Farrell amid a sea of large photos of her male colleagues. When Dr. Salk was honored at a dinner at the University of Toronto, the event was held in a men’s-only dining hall and Farrell was forced to stand outside the room to greet Salk at the door before he went in. Farrell retired from Connaught in 1969 and died in 1986.

Farrell, almost lost in a sea of portraits of colleagues in a Globe and Mail article

Colleagues remember Leone Farrell as a classic researcher. Her meticulous attention to detail and ability to transmit her techniques and ideas left Connaught Labs with a rich heritage of well-trained staff. Her greatest contributions were expediting vaccination against pertussis in the early 1940s and making possible the large-scale production of the Salk polio vaccine in the early 1950s.

Farrell was among a small group of women of her generation to earn a PhD in the sciences. She was a strong supporter of women in the lab but did not consider herself a feminist.

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