Ernest Goodpasture and the Mass Production of Vaccines

Lisa A. DuBois
Published: April, 2004

Samuel Paplanus, M.D.
In 1796, the English doctor Edward Jenner inoculated the 8-year old son of an itinerant farm hand with the cowpox virus. Two months later, and on several subsequent occasions, he deliberately exposed the boy to fresh smallpox sores. Just as Jenner suspected, the boy never developed smallpox because his early exposure to cowpox—a related virus that does not cause disease in humans—provided lifetime protection against its more dangerous relative. Questionable ethics aside, Jenner is generally considered a medical pioneer—proving that vaccination could protect against a lethal disease.

Even though such world leaders as Napoleon Bonaparte and Thomas Jefferson were advocates of vaccination as a prevention strategy, most people feared the process—and with good reason. Many attempts at immunization failed because some patients developed fatal smallpox or serious bacterial superinfections. Also, far-fetched rumors circulated about children who were stricken with mange or an “ox-faced deformity” after being inoculated with cowpox. As a result, vaccinations were not generally accepted until well into the 20th Century.

In1924, Ernest Goodpasture, M.D., was recruited to Vanderbilt University Medical School as its first chairman of Pathology. Interested in the pathology of viruses, he began to study the effect of herpes and rabies before turning his attention to fowlpox, which he preferred as a laboratory model because it did not affect humans and it produced skin lesions in chickens that could be systematically evaluated. To expand his studies, Goodpasture had to figure out a technique for obtaining large quantities of fowlpox virus in pure culture.

Solving the problem, he and his colleagues, Eugene and Alice Woodruff, developed a method for growing the virus in chicken embryos, maintaining sterile conditions while they opened the eggshell and infected the underlying membrane with fowlpox. Using this chick embryo system, they consistently produced pure cultures of fowlpox.

“That was the first time viruses had been grown in a reproducible way in a pre-antibiotic era,” says Robert Collins, M.D., professor of Pathology at Vanderbilt and author of the biography, Ernest William Goodpasture: Scientist, Scholar, Gentleman. “On the basis of his success with fowlpox, Dr. Goodpasture immediately began to work on vaccinia (like cowpox, another relative of smallpox), because he recognized the need to have a more standard vaccinating material against smallpox. He had found a relatively easy way to grow up mass quantities of infectious material in a sterile environment. This was a major accomplishment in those times before tissue culture techniques were standardized.”

In 1935, in cooperation with the Tennessee State Board of Health, Goodpasture and colleagues vaccinated nearly 1,200 children with the new smallpox vaccine and achieved a remarkable rate of success. But Goodpasture was a basic researcher, and realizing the potential for his landmark discovery, he simply handed the chick embryo technique for growing vaccinia virus over to Upjohn Pharmaceuticals to carry out its commercial production and delivery. Subsequently, the chick embryo technique was also used in the development of vaccines against yellow fever, typhus, influenza and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

“In my view Goodpasture was an ideal academician,” Collins says. “He chose the profession of medicine because of his desire to understand the mechanisms of disease and thereby reduce the ravaging effects of infections. And he recognized that academic medical institutions were in a particularly advantageous position to benefit mankind.”

The “science, art and humanity” of an affiliated medical school, Goodpasture once stated in a speech, are of great benefit to universities. “Medicine,” he said, “is the most universally accepted example of what education and science can do in the interest of well-being …”

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