Polio and Nobel Prizes

7 September 2007

I often lecture about polioviruses and poliovirus vaccines, and I am frequently asked why Salk or Sabin did not receive the Nobel Prize. I usually tell students because Salk did not discover anything new, but simply put together existing technologies in a productive way. Sabin once said that Salk didn’t invent anything, what he did was pure kitchen chemistry. An article in the Annals of Neurology, “Polio and Nobel Prizes: Looking Back 50 Years”, by Erling Norrby and Stanley Prusiner, directly addresses this question.

The authors took advantage of the fact that the Nobel Archives are open to scholarly investigation 50 years after the Prize is awarded. They looked into the written record surrounding the 1954 Nobel Prize, which was awarded to John Enders, Thomas Weller, and Frederick Robbins for their discovery of the ability of poliovirus to grow in cultures of various types of tissue. This discovery was a milestone in virology because it not only lead to the production of both killed and live poliovirus vaccines, but it allowed the growth of many other viruses.

Examination of the Nobel Archives reveals that Dr. Sven Gard, Professor of Virology at the Karolinska Institute, convinced the Nobel Committee to name Enders and his colleagues recipients of the 1954 Prize. He wrote that ‘the discovery by Enders’ group is the most important in the whole history of virology…The discovery has had a revolutionary effect on the discipline of virology’. Salk was nominated for the Prize in 1955 and in 1956. The first time, it was decided to wait for the results of the clinical trial of Salk’s killed poliovaccine, which was in progress. In 1956, Gard wrote an 8-page analysis of Salk’s work, in which he concluded that “Salk has not in the development of his methods introduced anything that is principally new, but only exploited discoveries made by others.” He concluded that “Salk’s publications on the poliomyelitis vaccine cannot be considered as Prize worthy”.

In the late 1960s, Salk, Sabin, Koprowski, and Gard were nominated for the Nobel Prize for poliovirus vaccines. Gard refused to be nominated, saying that the work was not primary but depended on accomplishments of those who had already received the Prize; this effectively killed the nomination. The developers of the poliovaccine were never again seriously considered for a Nobel Prize.

From now on, when asked why Salk did not receive the Nobel Prize, I will have the right answer.