Hilary Koprowski

G. Stockton Strawbridge
Herman Mattleman

A native of Warsaw, Poland, Koprowski was the son of a textile manufacturer and a female dental surgeon. From an early age he was drawn to both science and music. At the age of twelve, he enrolled in the Warsaw Conservatory of Music to study piano. In 1939 Koprowski graduated with an M.D. from the University of Warsaw. During the summer Koprowski had worked in a laboratory in Dublin, Ireland, where he “was bitten by the bug of experimental medicine and [became] very little interested in patients.” When the Nazis invaded Poland, Koprowski and his wife Irena fled the country. Upon graduating from the Santa Cecilia Conservatory of Music in Rome in 1940, Koprowski made a final decision to dedicate his career to science.

A fter spending the next four years as a research associate for the Yellow Fever Research Service in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Koprowski settled with his family in Pearl River, New York where he worked as a researcher at Lederle Laboratories. In 1948 Koprowski tested the polio vaccine he was developing, by swallowing a liquid (his vaccine) that included mashed rat brains infected with the live polio virus. By 1950 Koprowski had developed the first oral polio vaccine. The vaccine was administered in mass trials, including to nine million children in Poland and 250,000 children in what today is called Zaire. These trials proved effective, and thousands were saved from the crippling disease. Although his vaccine was never licensed for use in the United States, Koprowski’s pioneering work paved the way for Albert Sabin’s polio vaccine.

In 1957 Koprowski was recruited to be the director of the Wistar Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. He described the facility upon his arrival as “more a museum of skeletons than a site of research.” Koprowski was also a professor of research medicine and microbiology. Under his leadership, Wistar scientists developed the Rubella (German measles) vaccine, virtually eliminating the disease from much of the world. Along with his colleagues, Koprowski developed a more effective rabies vaccine than the one developed by Louis Pasteur, as well as an oral bait version for animals. During the late 1970s, Koprowski led the way in the development of the first functional monoclonal antibodies, which are used in cancer immunotherapy and to detect cancer antigens.

For his research achievements at the Wister Institute, Koprowski received the Philadelphia Award of 1989. When proposing Koprowski for the award, Dr. Luther W. Brady wrote that Koprowski “has probably done more to benefit mankind in general than any other current medical investigator [in Philadelphia].”

After thirty-four years as director of Wistar, Koprowski was dismissed by the institute’s board of trustees in 1991. He and the board sued each other in federal court, with Koprowski charging age and personal discrimination, and the board pointing to the institute’s deficit and the biomedical firm, Centocor, which Koprowski had cofounded. The issue apparently was whether scientists, or the university, should profit from discoveries. None could dispute, however, that Koprowski had transformed the Wistar Institute into a world-renowned center for biomedical research, with a staff that had expanded from 4 to over 150 scientists.

In 1992 Koprowski was hired by Thomas Jefferson University as the Director of the Center of Neurovirology and Biotechnology Foundation Laboratories, where he oversaw the development of new products for the treatment and prevention of diseases, including cancer, multiple sclerosis, and hepatitis B. At the age of 96 Koprowski continues to work as a researcher at Jefferson. His achievements represent the “particular role of Philadelphia scientists in the development of biomedical sciences” and his lifelong commitment to groundbreaking research in virology and cancer research.

Sara Block

Sources: “Hilary Koprowski,” Thomas Jefferson University, http://www.jefferson.edu/jmc/microbiology/vaccine_center/faculty/koprowski.cfm; “Hilary Koprowski,” Hilary Koprowski, http://www.koprowski.net/documents/home/html; Huntly Collins, “The Gulp Heard Round the World”,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 6, 2000; Marie McCullough, “Oral-polio-vaccine luminary, 93, suing Jefferson for discrimination,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug. 11, 2010; McCullough, “Feisty Hearing on 93-year-old researcher’s suit,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 28, 2010;. The following are collected in Philadelphia Award Records, Series 2 (Recipients and Nominees), Box 7, folder 18: announcement of award, support letters, newspaper clippings, article, biography. Photo: Courtesy ofTemple University Urban Archives. Comment: Koprowski never stopped studying music. He played the piano, especially the works of Chopin, and in the evenings composed music, often intended as an accompaniment to poetry. During his acceptance speech for the Philadelphia Award, Koprowski stated that “the intense musical life of Philadelphia is particularly appealing to [him] as a musician. From the beloved Philadelphia Orchestra to the ‘Unstrung Heroes’ of the Concerto Soloists, it pulsates with unusual vigor.” He went on to state that he “[continues] to enjoy Philadelphia as [his] real abode for now and forever.”