Hilary Koprowski – A Dream to Maintain People’s Health and Save Lives

Hilary Koprowski – A Dream to Maintain People’s Health and Save Lives

22 October 2018

Professor Hilary Koprowski, a Polish immunologist and virologist, created a vaccine against the polio virus, which, along with the practice of mass vaccinations, has maintained the health and saved the lives of millions. This, however, was not the only important achievement in his career.

Hilary Koprowski’s dream and determination to save human lives made his name famous within the field global vaccinology. His vaccine against the polio virus, which causes poliomyelitis, put an end to the epidemic of that disease both in Poland and throughout the world.

Polish beginnings

Hilary Koprowski was born in 1916 in Warsaw. He attended Mikołaj Rej secondary school in that city before later graduating in Medicine at the University of Warsaw. In 1939, he also graduated from the Conservatory of Music, specializing in the piano. Having completed his education, he and his family left Poland. He lived in Italy for some time, then went to Brazil, where the Rockefeller Foundation allowed him to work on various viruses from different parts of the world. In 1944 he moved to the United States, where he found even greater research opportunities. Hilary Koprowski joined the Lederle Laboratory, where he would soon make a breakthrough discovery.

In the fight against polio

It was in 1948 when he, along with two American virologists, created a vaccine against the polio virus. In order to check that it did not cause any harmful side effects, Professor Koprowski tried the first dose on himself and a technician who was accompanying him in his research endeavours. In 1950, it was given orally to children for the first time. However, mass vaccinations against the virus did not begin until 1958. Once the programme began, however, over 250,000 children and infants in the Congo were successfully vaccinated against polio.

A year later, Professor Feliks Przesmycki approached Hilary Koprowski with a request for the vaccine to be made available in Poland. Nine million doses were shipped to Poland, and consequently the number of polio cases fell from over a thousand in 1959 to just 30 four years later.

A passion for exploration and discovery

The list of Professor Hilary Koprowski’s accomplishments and scientific efforts is impressive. One such effort led him to modify Pasteur’s rabies vaccine as well as the vaccine against rubella, thereby increasing their effectiveness and reducing side effects. He was also involved in research on cancer treatments and the creation of drugs against chronic neurological diseases, including multiple sclerosis. At the end of his career, he participated in the development of vaccines served in vegetables such as tomatoes, lettuce, and spinach. In total, he obtained around 100 American patents in the fields of vaccines and biochemical processes used in medicine and the pharmaceutical industry.

Professor Hilary Koprowski achieved a lot in his scientific career. He headed the Wistar Institute for over 30 years. He was also the director of the Institute of Biotechnology and Advanced Molecular Medicine and the Center for Neurovirus Science at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. He founded the Koprowski Foundation to support science in Poland and Polish-American scientific cooperation.

He was both exceptionally hard working and deeply curious of the world. Medicine and music were his great life passions. He was also able to maintain a healthy distance from himself and had a wry sense of humour. In one interview he opined that the most important vaccine needed in this world is one against human stupidity. However, no one knows how to achieve this goal, not even Professor Koprowski.

He retired at the age of 97, leaving behind a long list of scientific achievements and an inspiring story full of fulfilled dreams.


  1. S. Łotysz, Polscy wynalazcy. Sylwetki 100 najznakomitszych polskich wynalazców [Polish inventors. Biographies of the top 100 Polish inventors], Pub. Dragon, Bielsko Biała 2018
  2. K. Zioło-Pużuk, Polak i wirusy [A Pole and viruses], Tygodnik Przegląd
  3. K.Burda, Jak Polak wygrał z epidemią polio [How a Pole beat the polio epidemic], Newsweek
  4.  Zmarł prof. Koprowski, twórca szczepionki przeciwko polio [Prof. Koprowski, creator of the polio vaccine, has died], Polska Agencja Prasowa
  5.  Stworzył szczepionkę przeciw polio, marzył o innej – przeciwko głupocie [He created the polio vaccine, while dreaming about another – against stupidity], Polskie Radio | Jedynka
  6. Podcast: Wieczór odkrywców – rozmowa red. Krzysztofa Michalskiego z prof. Markiem Niemiałtowskim, zawierająca fragmenty archiwalnej rozmowy red. Michalskiego z prof. Hilarym Koprowskim [An Evening with Inventors. Krzystof Michalski in Conversation with Prof. Marek Niemiałtowski, containing a recording of Krzysztof Michalski’s conversation with Prof. Hilary Koprowsk]
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