Toronto's unknown polio soldier
|LUCAS OLENIUK /
the Sanofi Pasteur archives help piece together the role of Dr. Leone
Farrell in finding the polio cure. From the top: a memo from Jonas
Salk; a photo of the bottles and rocking machine Farrell used to
produce mass quantities of the virus; an outline of the
responsibilities of the members of the Connaught team; and a copy of
the polio project budget from Connaught labs.
A heroine in an unmarked grave
In the 50 years since the world first rejoiced in the
success of Jonas Salk's polio vaccine, the name and famed
accomplishments of the renowned American researcher have grown
Few, on the other hand, know who Leone Farrell is.
Yet there she was, tucked away in a small Toronto laboratory, a quiet,
50-year-old chemist, who, to Salk's utter delight, figured out how to
produce the virus in the vast quantities he needed for the field trial
of his vaccine.
It became the biggest medical experiment of all time, involving close
to two million children, and Farrell was among the teams of American
and Canadian scientists who waited in breathless anticipation for the
results to be announced on April 12, 1955. That triumphant day, Salk's
life changed forever.
But although Farrell's contribution was recognized by her
contemporaries, she returned to work in relative obscurity. She
continued to publish research papers well into her 60s and lived to the
age of 82. But she died alone. Her gravesite in the Park Lawn Cemetery
just west of High Park reveals nothing of the key role she played in
eradicating polio. Her remains are buried in Lot 707, in an unmarked
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, polio swept North
America in epidemic waves, crippling and killing tens of thousands of
children. The poliomyelitis virus entered the body through the mouth,
invaded the bloodstream and could be carried to the central nervous
system, causing paralysis and, in some cases, death.
Epidemics struck in 1931 and again in 1937. In Toronto, children were
kept indoors, swimming pools, parks and churches were closed and the
start of school delayed.
Stricken families were quarantined. Another epidemic hit in 1946. The
worst in the U.S. came in 1952; Canada's worst year was 1953, when
9,000 children were infected.
News reports appeared daily on the horrors of school-aged children
suddenly unable to walk. Others died days after contracting the virus.
Originally thought to be a children's disease, polio also struck
parents, nurses and teachers; many became permanently imprisoned in
During the 1930s and 1940s, polio researchers throughout the world were
on the hunt for a cure. Small breakthroughs were achieved in
understanding the virus, but they were often countered by frustrating
setbacks, cost being one.
In 1949, Harvard researchers discovered a way to grow the poliovirus in
a test tube. Suddenly, the scientific community was in a race to create
Salk made his discovery in 1952, as the worst epidemic yet gripped the
United States. While conducting tests in his University of Pittsburgh
laboratory, the bespectacled scientist came up with an experimental
vaccine containing "killed," or inactivated virus, which could trigger
a person's blood to build immunity. His team proved it worked with
months and months of tests in monkeys, and later in a small group of
Salk now faced another challenge: how to mass-produce the polio virus
in order to treat the millions clamouring for it.
North of the border, Connaught Medical Research Laboratories, owned by
the University of Toronto, had been conducting its own polio research
since the late 1930s. Research was briefly interrupted by the Second
World War but resumed before the war ended. According to Canadian
medical historian Christopher Rutty, Connaught's reputation as a true
academic research centre put scientists like Leone Farrell in a unique
position to play a major role in what unfolded over the coming decade.
Unlike the pharmaceutical companies to the south, Connaught's interest
lay squarely in scientific research, vaccine production and public
"It didn't have to answer to shareholders, it didn't have that
corporate thinking and it didn't have competitors. It was really the
only one of its kind in Canada," says Rutty, whose doctoral thesis on
polio will soon be published in a book titled The Middle Class
For that reason, the U.S. National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis,
or March of Dimes — founded by then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt,
himself crippled by the disease — had been quietly pouring money into
Connaught's polio research. By the late 1940s, the company had set up
its own special polio team led by British virologist Dr. Andrew J.
Farrell was asked to join the team in 1952 — the year that Salk made
his crucial discovery.
Born in Monkland, a rural community south of Ottawa, Farrell was raised
in Toronto. "Very much a lady" is how one of Farrell's colleagues
described her, recalling that she always wore suits and heels and kept
her hair short and neat.
Leone Norwood Farrell was no ordinary lady, however. She had, by age
29, obtained a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Toronto. It was
a rare feat for women in those days; a mere handful of Canadian women
each year obtained PhDs in the 1930s.
Farrell joined the staff at Connaught in 1934, 20 years before the
polio field trials. Her specialty was the study of fungi, and she had
spent two years working as a chemist looking at yeasts in honey for the
National Research Council of Canada. She was hired by Connaught to do
studies on staphylococcus toxoids and conducted significant studies on
antibiotics, penicillin and the prevention of bacterial infections such
as diphtheria, cholera and whooping cough.
Farrell lived alone on the second floor of a two-bedroom balcony
apartment on the corner of Avenue Rd. and Oriole Parkway and each day
traveled the six kilometres south to her laboratory at the U of T
campus. Not much more is known of her personal life; her colleagues
remember her dedication and skill but remember little about her
interests, her habits, her passions.
In 1943, Connaught — by then a world leader in the development and
manufacture of vaccines, insulin and penicillin — purchased Knox
College and moved its research and production operations to the
towering Gothic revival building on Spadina Crescent.
It was during this period that Farrell came up with a unique method of
gently "rocking" large bottles containing the pertussis bacteria to
stimulate its growth for production of a whooping cough vaccine. This
discovery would prove to be crucial 10 years later in the race against
Connaught's first major polio breakthrough came in 1951. Earlier, its
cancer researchers had developed the first synthetic medium, Medium
199. Other Connaught scientists tried the medium for growing the polio
virus on monkey kidney tissue and found that the virus rapidly
multiplied in the chemically pure fluid. Suddenly, it was Farrell's job
to find a way to produce the virus in bulk quantities.
The production race was on.
"Leone was probably the most experienced person in that atmosphere. Her
specialty had been the mass production of bacterial cultures," said
79-year-old Frank Shimada, a researcher who was part of the testing
process and, in his mid-20s at the time, the youngest member of the
In the course of regular meetings held at the Spadina lab in 1952,
Farrell, Shimada and others discussed how to grow the virus, what
containers to use, how much medium to use. It was constant trial and
error. Farrell was "a good person and a team player," he recalled. "She
knew what she was doing. She was a classic researcher and disciplined
in her work to the extent that she knew you laid out a plan and
followed it carefully for things to get done."
It took months, but research would finally prove the rocking-bottle
method used in Farrell's pertussis studies, later to be called the
"Toronto technique," was the solution they'd been looking for.
Using large, rectangular 5-litre bottles, Farrell adhered a tiny piece
of monkey kidney tissue cells to the inside glass, added the medium
and, over the course of several days, gently rocked the bottles on
specially built machines to agitate the fluid and spur cell production.
The bottles were kept in incubator rooms warmed to a body temperature
of 37C. A few degrees higher and the entire batch could be destroyed.
The polio virus was then added to infect the cells and the rocking
continued for several more days. The gratifying result was an abundance
of live polio virus.
With a mass vaccine now in sight, Connaught in 1953 was handed the
prestigious and painstaking task of supplying almost all of the 3,000
litres of virus fluids needed for Salk's field trials. Farrell remained
in charge of what now became a vast and intricate production involving
many more monkeys, medium and bottles, more buildings and more staff to
train. During this period, at least 165 monkeys a week were required to
produce the virus, Rutty said.
"This all had to be done from the ground up," recalled Shimada. "They
had to build labs, incubators, the whole bit. Techniques had to be
developed right down to special washing instructions to clean the
accolade can you
get than knowing
you helped save
thousands of kids
from becoming paralyzed'
Farrell was instrumental in the design and implementation of it all —
an achievement recognized in the dry, bureaucratic language of an
unsigned career summary placed in her employment file.
"The breadth of these accomplishments bears testimony to the knowledge
and mental fertility enjoyed by Dr. Farrell. Never was she lacking in
basic ideas of how to accomplish her scientific goals," reads the
summary, which is now part of the Connaught archival collection.
"She was a very serious person. She was always doing research. It was
always `try this, try that,'" recalls former colleague Stephanie
Schenk. Schenk, now retired, joined Connaught as a young research
assistant in early 1954, by which time Farrell and others were already
working round-the-clock to produce large volumes of the live virus.
"I didn't know Dr. Farrell all that well, but back then everyone was so
wrapped up in their work. They were so dedicated, it was unbelievable."
In the crucial months leading up to the field trials, bottles of the
live virus were packed in ice, then placed inside dairy cans and loaded
onto a station wagon at the rear doors of the Spadina building. From
there the precious cargo was raced twice weekly to the U.S., crossing
the border at Detroit on its way to two American drug firms where the
virus was "killed," or inactivated, for Salk's use.
Salk, in a signed letter to Connaught director Robert Defries shortly
before the trial results were announced in 1955, thanked the Connaught
team for their "Herculean task" in providing the virus. When the
momentous day arrived — April 12, 1955 — hundreds of scientists
gathered in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the results were being announced.
In Toronto, nearly 700 doctors, technicians and nurses crowded into the
Crystal Ballroom at the King Edward Hotel to watch the report on two
dozen TV sets installed specifically for the event.
The late-edition headlines that day said it all — the Salk polio
vaccine had proven safe and 80 to 90 per cent effective in tests on
children across the United States and parts of Canada and Finland. With
the news, mass immunizations for millions of Canadian and American
schoolchildren and their parents immediately got under way.
In the days following the announcement, Canadian journalists rushed to
the Toronto lab for interviews and photographs. The faces of the
Connaught team, including Farrell's, were splashed across the front
page of the Globe and Mail. A proud Defries took his team out
for dinner at the Royal York Hotel.
"I was totally lost in the limelight," recalled Shimada. "That was the
moment when you thought, `My God, we're making history.' Until then
there wasn't any of that, because that wasn't our purpose."
In the months and years since, some Canadian politicians have felt
Connaught — later swallowed up by pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur —
did not get the recognition from Americans that it deserved. Rutty
argues, however, that Salk was in an impossible situation because so
many people had been involved in helping tie all the pieces together,
including researchers in his own lab who also felt slighted. Salk, for
instance, appeared alone on the cover of Time magazine in 1954.
Even so, Farrell has pretty much been written out of history.
University of Victoria women's studies professor Marianne Gosztonyi
Ainley, whose book Essays on Canadian Women and Science
reflects on the historical record of women scientists, hadn't heard of
Farrell or her accomplishments. Her case, Ainley said, raises a lot of
questions not just about who she was but about who gets credit for
scientific discoveries and whose name gets perpetuated.
"The public often has trouble understanding that scientific discoveries
are team efforts," she said. "Farrell should be remembered. Her
accomplishments should be remembered."
Last week, a commemorative piece on Salk published in the Journal
of the American Medical Association recounted the contributions of
scientists, including Salk, to "one of the greatest achievements of the
20th century." Once again, there is no mention of the role played by
Connaught, by Farrell, or anyone, for that matter, who was part of the
polio effort in Toronto — names like Defries, Rhodes, Shimada, Taylor,
Macmorine, Wood, Graham, Franklin, Morgan, Parker or Morton.
Shimada says that if Farrell were alive today, it's doubtful she would
"When you're in medicine, what greater accolade can you get than
knowing you helped save thousands of kids from becoming paralyzed? The
important thing is that people know in their own hearts they are
contributors. That's what it's all about."
The former Connaught laboratories building on Spadina Crescent is
slated to undergo a major renovation to house fine arts. The
high-ceilinged hallway on the second floor where Farrell worked is now
quiet. The labs are gone; a few classrooms and offices are in their
The only evidence of those exciting days are three heavy wooden doors,
behind which the live virus was kept cold prior to transport.
They remain bolted shut.
pretty much written
out of history
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