Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Dr. Leone Farrell Project: Heroine in an unmarked grave.

I've been reading up on a 'typically Canadian' history story. It's about Dr. Leone Norwood Farrell of Toronto and her role in the creation of the polio vaccine.

In a nutshell, Dr. Jonas Salk was head of the University of Pittsburgh team who discovered a polio vaccine (known as the Salk Vaccine) in the mid 1950s. Two of his researchers came up with a 'potion' that seemed to work in individual animal tests but they could not crack how to successfully recreate the vaccine in large quantities to allow for larger-scale testing and, eventually, human trials.

This is where Dr. Farrel comes in.

She was a 50 year-old researcher at the University of Toronto's Connaught Laboratories and led the team that discovered the "Toronto Technique" that allowed for mass production of the serum. Her product was made and shipped in bulk over the border to U.S. labs where it was refined and made into small vaccine doses for testing, trails and distribution to millions throughout North America.

Jonas Salk, of course, became the face of the vaccine and a world-wide celebrity. What of the woman who created the method that took the formula from the lab bench to the world ?

Well, she died in 1986 and ended up in an unmarked grave in Toronto.

In 2005 the Toronto Star did a story about the long-forgotten Farrel. They interviewed the remaining team member who says she was a "dedicated, classic researcher" and that she likely wouldn't care about the anonymity, that it was the discovery at the time that mattered.

Still, a pair of Toronto doctors Dr. Mary Hunter and Dr. John Fowler read the story and were determined to get her recognition beyond simply being 'marker 707'. The accomplished that goal and got an inscription on the headstone stating her name and achievement.

They also want a commemorative plaque at 1 Spadina Crescent where the discovery was made.

Connaught's labs are are long gone and the administrative building is slated to one day become a new U of T faculty of architecture. The doctors were surprised that they met with more red tape than anything about their idea but, eventually, got the University to agree that in a couple of years (or more) when the building becomes the new faculty that they'd allow a plaque.

It's the least that can be done for Dr. Farrell.

This story interested me because it drives me to do a lot of what I do in this blog and at This Was Manitoba.

There are lots of sexy historic buildings, issues, and people that we know a bit about, or at least think we know about. There are infinitely more forgotten buildings, stories and people. People and places that built our cities and provinces that we take little time or effort to think about.

Next time you pass a cairn on the highway or a fading plaque on a building or see a yellowed newspaper article pinned up in a Legion showcase, take time to check it out. There are some fascinating stories out there !

Toronto Star articles:
Toronto's unknown polio soldier. A heroine in an unmarked grave Apr. 17, 2005
Pioneering female scientist to be commemorated Dec. 2, 2010

Dr. Leone Farrell bio - science.ca
Science flashback: the end of an epidemic - NRC Canada
Canada and the Eradication of Polio Canadian Public Health Association

Health Heritage Research articles:
Connaught and the Canadian Polio Vaccine Story
Canada and the Great Salk Vaccine Trial of 54-55

Click on images for sources.


Anonymous said...

Very cool article on the polio vaccine. Keep up the good woik! I very much enjoy your blog.

mrchristian said...

Thanks !