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Polio and nobel prizes: Looking back 50 years


  • Erling Norrby MD, PhD,

    1. Center for History of Science, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, Sweden
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  • Stanley B. Prusiner MD

    Corresponding author
    1. Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Departments of Neurology and Biochemistry and Biophysics, University of California San Francisco, San Francisco, CA
    • Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases, 513 Parnassus Avenue, HSE-774, University of California, San Francisco, CA 94143
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In 1954, John Enders, Thomas Weller, and Frederick Robbins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discovery of the ability of poliomyelitis viruses to grow in cultures of various types of tissue.”53, 70 This discovery provided for the first time opportunities to produce both inactivated and live polio vaccines. By searching previously sealed Nobel Committee archives, we were able to review the deliberations that led to the award. It appears that Sven Gard, who was Professor of Virus Research at the Karolinska Institute and an adjunct member of the Nobel Committee at the time, played a major role in the events leading to the awarding of the Prize. It appears that Gard persuaded the College of Teachers at the Institute to decide not to follow the recommendation by their Nobel Committee to give the Prize to Vincent du Vigneaud. Another peculiar feature of the 1954 Prize is that Weller and Robbins were included based on only two nominations submitted for the first time that year. In his speech at the Nobel Prize ceremony, Gard mentioned the importance of the discovery for the future production of vaccines, but emphasized the implications of this work for growing many different, medically important viruses. We can only speculate on why later nominations highlighting the contributions of scientists such as Jonas Salk, Hilary Koprowski, and Albert Sabin in the development of poliovirus vaccines have not been recognized by a Nobel Prize. Ann Neurol 2007;61:385–395