Dr. Jonas Salk’s Female Colleagues

Julie Kerlin

Polio is a disease that ravaged the country every summer

Polio is a disease that ravaged the country every summer since the initial outbreak in 1916. This “summer plague” mainly affected children and was so terrifying that people across the nation refrained from doing just about anything aside from necessities. The Salk Vaccine was developed to fight poliovirus, and on April 12, 1955, the Salk Vaccine was announced as being “safe, effective, and potent.” When it came time for Dr. Jonas Salk to speak on behalf of his team’s work, he thanked people who were not involved in the research but had assisted in its development and progress. It was expected that Salk would thank his team at the Virus Research Laboratory (VRL) or at least mention them; however, he did not. Salk’s failure to credit his staff, in and after April 1955, caused a great deal of conflict between him and his staff, as well as resulted in credit not being given where credit was due. The women who were not recognized actually did not think much of it because their interest was in fighting polio not getting credit for a medical milestone. Those women were unknown then and have remained unknown for 65 years. Dr. Elsie Ward was the only female named by Salk in his attempt to correct his April 1955 mistake. Ward was the only female senior scientist in the VRL. She was a microbiologist and a zoologist who started working in the VRL in 1950 and has been described as being a “gardener” in the way that she tended to her cultures. To test the first human samples during vaccine testing, Ward used a color-titration technique - the solution would turn yellow if the vaccine worked. On a morning in mid-September of 1953, Ward went into work early to check on her “babies.That morning she saw a spectrum of red to yellow and although not all were yellow, some were and that meant the vaccine worked! Ward had two lab assistants - Ethel Bailey and Louise Boccella. E. Bailey worked in the VRL from September 1952 to May 1955. Boccella was hired in 1950 and both women worked together handling monkey testicle tissue. In our personal interview, E. Bailey mentioned using mouth pipettes to inoculate test tubes. Back then, lab staff did not use the same safety equipment that labs are required to use today. The mouth pipettes were similar to normal pipettes except instead of using one’s fingers to squeeze and suck solution into the pipette, a mouth pipette required one to suck up the solution with their mouth. This was dangerous considering they were pipetting live poliovirus and according to E. Bailey, “one suck too hard and you got a mouth full of polio.” Remarkably, no one in Salk’s lab contracted polio.
Dr. Jonas Salk’s Female Colleagues
Dr Jonas Salk

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Salk’s main secretary, Lorraine Friedman, is one of the few women known to the public as being associated with the VRL and the Salk Vaccine.

Salk’s main secretary, Lorraine Friedman, is one of the few women known to the public as being associated with the VRL and the Salk Vaccine. She mostly did administration work and accompanied Salk to almost every school, handing out lollipops and keeping records. She was tasked with sending Salk’s correspondences and her initials can be found at the bottom of some letters. She signed the letters with a lowercase “lf” and the abbreviated “Enc.” However, there are other initials at the bottom of some letters - “avm” accompanied with the full word “Enclosure.” Recently, I uncovered that these are the initials of Anne Marbich, Salk’s unknown second secretary. Marbich was a medical secretary and she mainly forwarded research information to other labs in London and Berlin. Most importantly, there were numerous African American women who played a large role in the VRL, including Lenora Brown, Ruth Hightower, and Doris Finney. While there is hardly any information regarding their roles, I do know that they partook in the science of the VRL, not the kitchen staff who were responsible for cleaning the glassware that was used daily. For example, Finney worked with Dr. Julius Youngner preparing monkey tissue for the lab. The majority of the women from the VRL did not continue their careers in the medical research field. They went home. For approximately 8 years, the members of the VRL had put their lives on hold to conduct this research and complete it at the pace that they did. E. Bailey left to travel with her husband as he completed missionary work around the globe. Marbich chose to return to her farm life and take care of her children. It is clear that women had a large part in the development of the Salk Vaccine. Whether as an assistant, a secretary, a scientist, or on the kitchen staff, women ruled the VRL These unsung heroes deserve to be recognized. These women made the polio vaccine possible and put a huge medical milestone in American history.
Ancestry UK
Dr. Jonas Salk’s Female Colleagues

Julie Kerlin

Julie wrote for Edition 2, Forgotten Women of History.
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