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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

June 22, 2021: Vaccine Studying: John Franklin Enders

[June 26th marks the 300th anniversary of Boston physician Zabdiel Boylston’s first inoculations against the raging smallpox epidemic. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Boylston and other vaccine figures and histories, leading up to Friday’s post on the Covid vaccine!]

On two types of challenging collective histories we can better remember through the story of the “Father of Modern Vaccines” (well, one of them anyway—in researching this post I learned that Maurice Hilleman is known by that nickname as well).

In many ways, John Franklin Enders’ story is profoundly inspiring, and an example of how a life of privilege can still help produce important collective progress. Enders’ father John Ostrom Enders (1869-1958) was the CEO of Hartford National Bank as well as a civic leader and Connecticut State Representative, and upon his death in 1958 would leave his son $19 million; that son, John Franklin Enders (1897-1985), attended Yale University and seemed predetermined for a similarly privileged life. Yet he took a leave of absence from Yale to volunteer for the World War I US Army Air Corps in 1918 (he did finish his college education upon the war’s end), and that moment foreshadowed a life of communal service, both through his groundbreaking work in immunology at Children’s Hospital Boston and (especially) through his pioneering, Nobel Prize-winning contributions to the 20th century development of vaccines, especially the measles vaccine but also in the field more broadly (leading to that aforementioned nickname).

The fact that Enders isn’t better known (at least outside of the medical and scientific communities) is a reflection of one of the challenging histories I want to highlight in this post: our tendency to remember individual “inventors” or pioneers, often those who build on the work of others, rather than the more collective histories that truly constitute innovation and progress. I’ll have more to say about this in tomorrow’s post, but that trend seems clearly to be the case when it comes to the polio vaccine; Jonas Salk was indeed one of the scientists working toward that vaccine, but his work built on that of many others, including a well-established team featuring Enders and his fellow virologists Thomas Huckle Weller and Frederick Chapman Robbins. The trio’s work won them the 1954 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, so it’s not as if it and they weren’t acknowledged; but since Salk had publicly announced his successful development of a polio vaccine a year earlier, he became the famous face and name forever (at least to this point) associated with the vaccine.

History is damn complicated, however (that could really be the slogan for this blog), and the other largely forgotten, challenging history I want to highlight puts Enders in a far worse light. In the same year that Enders won that Nobel, he and his colleague Thomas C. Peebles isolated the measles virus in an 11 year old patient, and Enders began working on a vaccine for that highly contagious childhood illness (on which more later in the week as well). Such a vaccine was announced by the New York Times in September 1961, and Enders generously wrote to the paper to downplay his own role and acknowledge the contributions of colleagues. Which is all well and good, but there was another community who contributed to that process: the 1500 mentally disabled New York children on whom Enders and his colleagues performed experimental trials. As that complex hyperlinked newsletter details, at least some of those children, like 1966-1967 Poster Child Kim Fisher, had been affected by measles, making their role in the vaccine’s development symbolically significant to be sure. But it’s still quite difficult to say how much a voice these children had in their own role in these medical experiments, experiments that had no certainty of a positive outcome for them. Just one more layer to the complex histories of the Father of Modern Vaccines.

Next VaccineStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Vaccine histories or contexts you’d highlight?

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