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A well-researched tome reveals the people who helped make early vaccines possible

The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease

Meredith Wadman
Viking
2017
448 pp.
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Meredith Wadman’s meticulously researched and carefully crafted book, The Vaccine Race, is an enlightening telling of the development of vaccines in the mid-20th century. Drawing from firsthand interviews, personal correspondence, journal articles, and governmental archival documents, Wadman relates the work of the brilliant scientists who toiled for years to develop vaccines against diseases including polio, rubella, and rabies; the experiences of vulnerable individuals who were unwittingly enrolled in vaccine trials; and the suffering of families and individuals devastated by diseases that have since been nearly eradicated by vaccination. Capturing the human side of vaccine development, and explaining the science with clarity and precision, Wadman has written an intelligent and entertaining tome that will be of interest to scientists, regulators, and lay readers alike.

The book’s narrative centers largely around Leonard Hayflick: a brilliant, dogged, infinitely patient, and often obdurate researcher at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia who derived the WI-38 cell line from the lung cells of a fetus legally aborted in Sweden in 1962. Unlike other human cells grown in culture, the WI-38 cell line was capable of growing normally for many passages without acquiring mutations. Although Hayflick repeatedly demonstrated that WI-38 was free of viruses and more efficacious than the nonhuman cell lines commonly used to make vaccines at the time, politics, egotistical personalities, recalcitrant regulators, and brutal competition led WI-38 cells to be rejected again and again for production of vaccines.

Frustrated by a lack of recognition for his work, Hayflick left the Wistar Institute for Stanford in 1968 and—in a spectacular act of vigilantism—took the WI-38 cells with him, just as the NIH and Wistar officials were about to take possession of them. Hayflick’s “theft” and his subsequent acceptance of payments in exchange for starter cultures of the cells would eventually lead to an NIH investigation, jeopardizing his career and leading to the loss of his position and funding. As Wadman demonstrates, however, Hayflick’s actions also catalyzed a sea change in intellectual property law and scientific entrepreneurialism in the United States.

CLASSICSTOCK/ALAMY

A child prepares to receive a vaccination against polio in 1957.

The Vaccine Race brings the reader from the hallowed halls of the Wistar Institute to hospitals for the poor, orphanages, homes for pregnant teenagers, and a women’s prison. Here, young scientists eager to make their mark found experimental research subjects whose caregivers gave consent on their behalf. Acknowledging how shocking these practices seem to us today, Wadman illustrates, without criticism, the hubris of the investigators who believed that their vaccines were safe enough to proceed with human testing (they had been tested extensively in animals, after all). Indeed, a strength of the book is Wadman’s objectivity and lack of judgment regarding research approaches that were typical in their time.

Wadman is also to be commended for highlighting the contributions of a number of female scientists, philanthropists, and administrators during these early days of vaccine development. Important players included women such as Ruth Kirschstein, a pathologist in the NIH Division of Biologics Standards, who reviewed vaccine applications and helped to refine their testing protocols; Dorothy Horstmann, a clinician and epidemiologist who demonstrated the superiority of a new rubella vaccine; and Mary Lasker, a philanthropist who made significant financial and strategic contributions to vaccine initiatives.

Wadman’s book necessarily recounts the history of cell culture, since without it there could be no vaccine production. But the laboratory conditions under which early 20th-century science was conducted may surprise modern scientists. There were no fume hoods, for example, and mouth pipetting was standard practice, even for allocating serum. Tens of thousands of monkeys were sacrificed in the quest to make a polio vaccine; many more were used for preclinical testing—numbers unimaginable today.

The last third of The Vaccine Race places Hayflick and the WI-38 cell line in historical context, as Wadman discusses the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act, which enabled universities and private research institutions to patent federally funded inventions; the establishment of the biotech industry; the growth of ties between industry and academia; and the increasing acceptance of scientists as entrepreneurs.

Wadman raises questions that arose in the early days of vaccine development: Who owns donated specimens, and should donors be compensated? She acknowledges that these are unresolved issues that we are still grappling with today.

In the end, we are left with a comprehensive portrait of the many issues faced in the race to develop vaccines: the tension between regulators and the regulated, brutal competition, uncertain funding, controversies over the use of fetal tissue, questions of how and in whom we should test experimental products, and issues of intellectual property.

Editor’s note:
Meredith Wadman joined the Science staff while this review was in preparation. No alterations were made to the review in light of this development.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98109, USA.