Hilary Koprowski (5 December 1916 – 11 April 2013) was a Polish and American virologist and immunologist, and the inventor of the world’s first effective live polio vaccine.
He authored or co-authored over 875 scientific papers and co-edited several scientific journals. Koprowski received many academic honors and national decorations, including the Belgian Order of the Lion, the French Order of Merit and Legion of Honour, Finland’s Order of the Lion, and Poland’s Order of Merit.
Koprowski was the target of accusations in the press in the “OPV AIDS hypothesis”, an allegation long refuted by evidence proving the HIV-1 virus was introduced to humans long before his polio-vaccine trials were conducted in Africa. The case was settled out of court with the formal apology from the Rolling Stone.
Hilary Koprowski was born in Warsaw to an educated Jewish family. His parents met in 1906 when Paweł Koprowski (1882-1957) was serving in the Russian Army, and moved to Warsaw soon after their marriage in 1912. His mother Sonia (née Berland; 1883-1967), was a dentist from Berdichev.
Hilary Koprowski attended Warsaw’s Mikołaj Rej Secondary School, and from age twelve he took piano lessons at the Warsaw Conservatory. He received a medical degree from Warsaw University in 1939. He also received music degrees from the Warsaw Conservatory and, in 1940, from the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome. He adopted scientific research as his life’s work, but never gave up music and composed several musical works. In July 1938, while in medical school, Koprowski married Irena Grasberg.
In 1939, after Germany’s invasion of Poland, Koprowski and his wife, likewise a physician, fled the country, using Koprowski family business connections in Manchester, England. Hilary went to Rome, where he spent a year studying piano at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory; while Irena went to France, where she gave birth to their first child, Claude Koprowski, and worked as an attending physician at a psychiatric hospital.
As the invasion of France loomed in 1940, Irena and the infant escaped from France via Spain and Portugal —where the Koprowski family reunited — to Brazil, where Koprowski worked in Rio de Janeiro for the Rockefeller Foundation. His field of research for several years was finding a live-virus vaccine against yellow fever.
After World War II the Koprowskis settled in Pearl River, New York, where Hilary was hired as a researcher for Lederle Laboratories, the pharmaceutical division of American Cyanamid.
Here he began his polio experiments, which ultimately led to the creation of the first oral polio vaccine. Koprowski served as director of the Wistar Institute, 1957–91, during which period Wistar achieved international recognition for its vaccine research and became a National Cancer Institute Cancer Center.
Koprowski died on April 11, 2013, aged 96, in Wynnewood, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, of pneumonia.
Hilary Koprowski and his late wife are survived by two sons, Claude (born in Paris, 1940) and Christopher (born 1951). Claude Koprowski is a retired physician. Christopher Koprowski is a physician certified in two specialties, neurology and radio-oncology; he is chair of the department of radiation oncology at Christiana Hospital in Delaware.
Koprowski received many honorary degrees, academic honors, and national decorations, including the Order of the Lion from the King of Belgium, the French Order of Merit for Research and Invention, a Fulbright Scholarship, and appointment as Alexander von Humboldt Professor at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Munich.
In 1989 he received the San Marino Award for Medicine and the Nicolaus Copernicus Medal of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.
Koprowski received numerous honors in Philadelphia, including the Philadelphia Cancer Research Award, the John Scott Award and, in May 1990, the most prestigious honor of his home city, the Philadelphia Award. He was a Fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, which in 1959 presented him with its Alvarenga Prize.
Koprowski was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the New York Academy of Sciences, and the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America. He held foreign membership in the Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts, the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, and the Finnish Society of Sciences and Letters.
On 22 March 1995, Koprowski was made a Commander of Finland’s Order of the Lion by Finland’s president. On 13 March 1997 he received the Legion d’Honneur from the French government. On 29 September 1998 he was presented by Poland’s president with the Grand Cross of Poland’s Order of Merit.
On 25 February 2000 Koprowski was honored with a reception at Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first administration of his oral polio vaccine. At the reception, he received commendations from the United States Senate, the Pennsylvania Senate, and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge.
On 13 September 2004, Koprowski was presented with the Pioneer in NeuroVirology Award by the International Society for NeuroVirology at the 6th International Symposium on NeuroVirology held in Sardinia. On 1 May 2007, Koprowski was awarded the Albert Sabin Gold Medal by the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.
In 2014 Drexel University established the Hilary Koprowski Prize in Neurovirology in honor of Dr. Koprowski’s contributions to the field of neurovirology.
The prize is awarded annually in conjunction with the International Symposium on Molecular Medicine and Infectious Disease, which is sponsored by the Institute for Molecular Medicine and Infectious Disease (IMMID) within the Drexel University College of Medicine. During the Symposium, the prize recipient is asked to deliver an honorary lecture.
British journalist Edward Hooper publicized a hypothesis that AIDS might have been caused in the late 1950s in the Belgian Congo by Koprowski’s research into a polio vaccine.
The OPV AIDS hypothesis has, however, been rejected throughout the scientific community and is contradicted by modern research on the origin of the disease. The HIV-1 group M virus had originated in Africa 30 years before the OPV trials were conducted. The journal Science refuted Hooper’s claims, writing: “It can be stated with almost complete certainty that the large polio vaccine trial… was not the origin of AIDS.”
Koprowski rejected the claim, based on his own analysis. In a separate court case, he won a regretful clarification, and a symbolic award of $1 in damages, in a defamation suit against Rolling Stone, which had published an article repeating similar false allegations.
A concurrent defamation lawsuit that Koprowski brought against the Associated Press was settled several years later; the settlement’s terms were not publicly disclosed.
Koprowski’s original reports from 1960–61 detailing part of his vaccination campaign in the Belgian Congo are available on-line from the World Health Organization.