'Fear of the Invisible'


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Home How to find a Virus for a Vaccine
The start of the hunt for the polio vaccine Virus PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 18 August 2008 20:14

The Germ Theory of Disease


The Hunt for the Poliovirus


extracted from 'Fear of the Invisible


‘At the heart of science lies discovery which involves a change in worldview. Discovery in science is possible only in societies which accord their citizens the freedom to pursue the truth where it may lead and which therefore have respect for different paths to that truth,'

John Polanyi, Canadian Nobel Laureate (Chemistry); Commencement Address, McGill University, Montreal, Canada, June 1990


The hunt for a virus that causes polio began in the first years of the 20th Century as an emergency response to the horrifying onset of major epidemics of paralytic polio in Sweden and the United States. It was guided by a new scientific hypothesis then gathering strength that we now know of as the Germ Theory of Disease.

These polio epidemics were new - and yet poliomyelitis, to give it its full name, was not a new disease. It had been around for centuries and was long associated with metalworking.  But the virus we now blame for polio is a common human gut virus with no obvious connection to metalworking. This virus is produced solely by human cells, and spreads from us to be common in soil. Human infants acquire lifelong immunity to it as soon as they go into the garden and put a grubby hand in their mouth, as stated in a paper published on the website of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the US.

So - how did this virus come to cause these crippling and deadly epidemics? Sit back comfortably and read on, for this is also the story of the birth of modern virology and much of modern medicine. It took me some time to untangle it - but I think I can now explain it quite straightforwardly.


----------------------------- and the story continues...

We presume today that everyone knows that viruses cause major illnesses, but back in 1908, when the polio epidemics were starting to terrorise, viruses were not yet proved to cause illnesses; in fact they had not even been proved to exist! Initially it was speculated that viruses were smaller invisible versions of the barely visible single-celled bacteria that were already known to be able to reproduce and spread illnesses.

  Many medical theorists thought that epidemics were caused by minute filterable particles, like bacteria but so small that they could scarcely be seen. These were called viruses and an unknown one was suspected to cause polio.....

The scientists on the hunt conceived of viruses a priori as dangerous parasitic rivals to humans in the competition for life.  The electron microscope had not yet been invented, so for them these were invisible disease agents. Most viral ‘isolates' were little more than filtered cell cultures in which viruses were presumed present. They were thus named ‘virus' since this word means ‘poisonous liquid' in Latin.

Ever since, viruses have been regarded with fear, as if intelligent nano-terrorists that ‘invade' our cells, hijack them and outwit our defences. Viruses are feared as the ultimate mass destruction enemy, invisible agents able to kill millions in inevitable epidemics; mutant creatures that we must spend billions in fighting.

This is still the common view of viruses. ......... The virology specialists at that time, and ever since, have firmly dominated our major health institutions, such as the Centers for Disease Research, and persuasively held that epidemics must be caused by infectious agents, either bacteria or viruses.

I long believed the same. It seemed self-evident. In any case, as far as I then could judge, the very fact that polio vaccines now protect us from polio is sufficient proof that polio is caused by a virus........

When I read the related research, I was surprised to discover how little we know of how the poliovirus causes polio. Professor Akio Nomoto of Tokyo University stated in 1996, ‘little is known about the mechanisms by which the poliovirus causes paralysis ... it is not known how the virus moves into the blood from the primary multiplication site [the guts], how the virus invades the CNS [Central Nervous System] ... Humans are simply lucky that the polio vaccines worked.' He also noted the only way ‘polio can be shown to damage brain cells is to directly inject it across the barrier into monkey brains.'   This was a very major surprise; if this virus could not naturally get to these cells, how could it cause polio?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) credits the discovery of this virus, and of the infectious nature of polio, to a very famous experiment performed in Vienna in 1908 by Drs.  and Erwin Popper.


Koch and Pasteur inspired Landsteiner and Popper to begin their 1909 hunt for a virus causing polio.. As they couldn't find a bacterium to blame for polio - they guessed there must exist minute invisible forms of bacteria able to pass through all available filters and still cause disease. They called these mini-bacteria ‘viruses.'  We now know that their filters would not have stopped many other particles, including DNA fragments, proteins, prions, toxins and much more. 

Landsteiner and Popper first looked for suitable animals to use and selected two monkeys that were made available by Sigmund Freud in Vienna, who had been testing their intelligence against that of humans. The experiment they then carried out is today celebrated by the World Health Organization, and by other authorities, as being the first to isolate the poliovirus and prove it causes polio.

It is still praised by our universities.  For example Leicester University on their website states the theory that polio is not caused by an infection ‘was finally dispelled by Landsteiner & Popper (1909), who showed that poliomyelitis was caused by a "filterable agent" - the first human disease to be recognized as having a viral cause.'

But when I read the details of their experiment, I was shocked by its crudeness and the questions it left unanswered. The experiment involved taking the spinal cord from a 9-year-old victim of polio, mincing this and mixing it with water. They then injected a cup of the resulting suspension of human cell debris, blood, DNA, RNA, proteins and enzymes - together with any viruses or toxins present - directly into the brains of these two living monkeys, as well as into other animals.

This toxic mix killed one of the monkeys immediately. The other was slowly paralysed - and later found to have ‘similar' damage to its motor neurone cells as found in human polio cases. Landsteiner concluded the paralysis must be caused by an ‘invisible' microbe present in the injected material. He wrote:  ‘The supposition is hence, that a so-called invisible virus or a virus belonging to the class of causes the disease.' (Protozoa are living single-celled entities, as are bacteria, and can reproduce independently. They are thus very different from what we call viruses.)

Landsteiner and Popper did not stop there. They wanted to prove their virus was infectious. They thus acquired more monkeys and tried to ‘transmit paralysis' between them by grinding up the spinal cords from the sick monkeys and injecting these into the brains of other monkeys, as they had with the child's spinal cords - a process that is still used in vaccine research and technically called ‘passaging.' But, they were disappointed. They failed to pass on paralysis

The following year Simon Flexner and Paul Lewis of the illustrious Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research ‘proved' a similarly made noxious soup was ‘infectious' by succeeding where the above experiment had failed - by apparently passing paralysis from one monkey to another.   What they did was to similarly prepare a suspension of ground up human backbone and inject this into the living brain of a monkey. They then extracted some fluid from its brain, injected this into another monkey's brain, and so on through a series of monkeys, but this time succeeding in paralysing all of them in the process.

Flexner and Lewis recorded their experiment in the pages of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Their conclusion was: ‘We failed utterly to discover bacteria, either in film preparations or in cultures, that could account for the disease,' They then went on to say the cause must then be the mysterious virus:  ‘The infecting agent of epidemic poliomyelitis belongs to the class of the minute and filterable viruses that have not thus far been demonstrated with certainty under the microscope.' Toxic causes were not even considered - let alone the multitude of other things that could well have been in this toxic stew injected directly into the monkeys' brains, thus completely bypassing their immune systems.

Such a soup cannot possibly be considered an  ‘isolate' of the tiny organism we now call a virus - despite this now being widely claimed. It also proved strangely non-infectious for a virus, for Flexner and Lewis found that the monkeys were not paralysed when made to drink it or when one of their limbs was injected with it, nor did they infect other monkeys. It had to be injected into their brains to have any effect.

The procedures of Flexner and Lewis were just as dubious as their conclusions. They took no account of the contaminants in their mashed-up soup and presumed what happened in monkeys would be replicated in humans. Their experiment thus shed no light on what element had paralysed the monkeys, and for that matter, what had paralysed the children with polio.

Yet these experiments are today celebrated in virology as of great historical importance, as being the first time a virus was proved to cause a major epidemic.   But - how could these experiments be so celebrated? How could a scientist credibly claim that injecting cellular debris into the skull of a monkey proves a virus to cause polio?

The more I read of what are supposed to be the victories of polio research, the more I have been, quite frankly, appalled. During the 1920s and 1930s all kinds of biological materials-spinal cord, brain, faecal matter, even flies-were ground up and injected into monkey brains to induce paralysis, causing great harm to many animals  - all in the hope that such experiments would explain why humans were getting summer polio.

The method they used to exclude bacteria from their injected sample of backbone was also quite extraordinary. They put some of the backbone suspension into a dish and watched to see what happened.  They reported: ‘If there was no [bacterial] growth after approximately 22 hours of incubation at 37 C., the specimen was considered suitable for inoculation into monkeys. This was not a sterility test, since growth would usually occur on longer incubation; it was rather an indication of the amount of bacterial contamination in the specimen.' Slow growing bacteria were thus deliberately not removed - and no toxin was looked for ­- yet they knew these might well be present.

From all I read, I was forced to conclude that these ‘scientists' shared a doctrinal conviction that the cause of polio must be a particular virus and could be nothing else. They routinely described as ‘isolated virus' what was nothing much more than fluid from a cell culture contaminated with many diverse particles and possibly toxins. What else but an irrational belief in a theory could so blind these scientists?

Yet, for a long time they admitted that they could not actually locate a particular particle within these various ground up suspensions called ‘viruses'  - let alone separate it out so it could be identified. Their practical concept of a virus thus seemed not to differ to any significant degree from the cowpox pus that Jenner had first named as a virus over a hundred years earlier.

The search for the poliovirus led to the invention of the electron microscope in 1932 by Ruska and Knoll, but the epidemics continued unchecked. This made the public extremely impatient with the health authorities, for all they had been told during the first half of the 20th century was that a mysterious invisible virus caused polio and was public enemy Number One - without it ever being identified.

It was not only polio research that was so blighted.  Dr Max Theiler of the Rockefeller Institute claimed he had invented a vaccine against yellow fever. He had made it by taking serum samples from sick patients and ‘passaging' these repeatedly by growing them in mice tissues.  He took fluid from the final mouse in the series and injected this into fertilized chicken eggs. After a week of incubation, the chick-embryos were removed from the eggs and finely minced. Human blood serum was then added to ‘stabilize' the viruses, although this may give the bird and mouse viruses the chance to mutate into forms that might infect humans. The resulting fluid was his yellow fever vaccine. In 1938 more than one million Brazilians were inoculated with this vaccine before it was discovered that it was contaminated with hepatitis B.

Another example: Harris in 1913 injected filtered tissue material from pellagra victims into monkeys and observed a similar disease developing in these animals. He concluded a virus must be present and be the cause of pellagra.  But it was then discovered that this disease is not caused by a virus but by vitamin deficiency. Dr. R. Scobey scathingly commented in 1952: ‘It is obvious that if the investigations of pellagra had been restricted to the virus theory, it would still be a mystery.'

It was only in the late 1940s that the scientists researching polio came to identify a particular virus with polio.  It was through what is now another famous experiment.  In 1948 Gilbert Dalldorf and Grace M. Sickles of the New York State Department of Health claimed to have ‘isolated' in the faeces of paralyzed children an ‘unidentified, filterable agent' or ‘virus' that might be the cause of polio.

They had done so by diluting the excrement of polio-victims.  They said they took a ‘20% faecal suspension, prepared by ether treatment and centrifugation.' (Ether to kill bacteria and centrifugation to remove large particles.) This they had injected ‘intracerebrally into mice'- meaning into the living brains of mice. The result was ‘suckling mice, 3-7 days of age, became paralyzed...'

So what had they proved with this experiment? Surely, only that paralysis could be induced in young mice by injecting diseased human excrement into their young brains?  I was utterly shocked that serious scientists could get away with describing this as the successful ‘isolation' of a virus that they had thus proved to cause polio in humans.

The highly respected bacteriologist Claus Jungeblut critically stated that such ‘viral isolates,' including those developed by Salk and other vaccine scientists, had not been proved to cause polio - as they had not been shown to give monkeys the disease found in human cases of infantile paralysis - and thus had failed to meet the Koch Postulates.

In fact quite the contrary had been demonstrated. Jungeblut said the virus would be so changed or mutated by the way these vaccine scientists passaged it through monkey cells that it would be quite unlike the wild virus by the time it was used for a vaccine.  He concluded: ‘The highly specialized ... virus which has been maintained in the past by intra-cerebral passage in rhesus monkeys is more likely a laboratory artefact than the agent which causes the natural disease in man.'

It also might not be the only agent at work. Daldorf and Sickle thought at one point that they had detected an agent at work alongside the ‘poliovirus,' helping to cause polio. ‘The patients we studied may possibly have been coincidentally infected with the new agent and classical poliomyelitis virus.'  They tried to test the putative ‘new agent' but it was ‘not successful in [causing disease in] the rhesus monkey.'

Their experiment was in 1949. It was immediately used as the scientific basis for the development of the polio vaccines. I was utterly horrified to learn that this noxious faeces-derived suspension they called a ‘poliovirus' was soon being experimented with as a ‘vaccine seed' to use for our polio vaccines. All this was for me a rude awakening. I never expected to read such crude science.  But, I clung to a last hope  - surely it could not have been dangerous, for if it were then surely many thousands of vaccinated children would be falling ill? Somehow or other, it must have been purified?

Up until around the time of Daldorf and Sickle's experiment, scientists had logically sought to find the suspect poliovirus in the diseased spinal cords and nerves of polio victims, where it should be found if it caused the illness. That was why they had focused on similar nerve tissue in monkeys. But by 1945 they had searched for over 30 years - and no virus had yet been identified in these tissues as responsible for this damage.

Monkeys were expensive to acquire, but nevertheless many thousands were bought and ‘sacrificed' in this hunt. Sabin exposed hundreds of monkeys to cellular material from his polio patients and then watched the monkeys for a month to see if weakness or paralysis developed. If it did, then he performed autopsies to see if the monkeys had suffered the damage to the spinal cord found in human polio victims.  But for him these studies failed, for he could not find in the damaged tissues the virus he was convinced must cause this damage.

Prior to Daldorf and Sickle's experiment many scientists had similarly hopefully named their filtered fluid samples from monkey brains as the ‘poliovirus' - but in each case had failed to prove it caused polio.  But, if they had succeeded, then growing enough of this to make the vaccine would have proved extremely expensive. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis estimated in 1948 that to grow enough poliovirus to inoculate all Americans would need the ‘sacrifice' of 50,000 monkeys.

Thus Daldorf and Sickle's ‘findings' were most welcome to Sabin and other polio vaccine developers, No longer would they need to try to find the poliovirus in expensive monkeys.  No longer would they have to search for it in the nerve cells it reputedly damaged, for Daldorf and Sickle had found it in easily procured human excrement. Under the electron microscope, a small ball-like particle was located in diluted excrement and named as the poliovirus. It was logically classified as ‘enterovirus,' a gut virus ­ - not a nerve virus at all, but in their elation, they left aside the issue of how a virus in the gut could cause polio in backbone and brain nerve tissues.

This tiny particle, some 24-30 nm (thousand millionths of a meter) in width, isolated from excrement, thus became the basis of our polio vaccine.  Dr Salk developed the first commercial polio vaccine with virus found in ‘the pooled faeces of three healthy children in Cleveland.' It was not found in the victims of polio. 

See Dr. John H. Lienhard of the University of Houston, author of Polio and Clean Water on the CDC website


 ‘Molecular Mechanism of Poliovirus Replication - Control of Poliomyelitis' Akio Nomoto (Professor, The Institute of Medical Science, The University of Tokyo, Japan) 1996

  The Journal of Immunology, vol.140, p.564



   The 1853 Compulsory Vaccination Act

The Case Against Vaccination. AN ADDRESS By WALTER HADWEN
J.P., M.D., L.R.C.P., M.R.C.S., L.S.A., Etc
(Gold Medalist in Medicine and in Surgery) At GODDARD'S ASSEMBLY ROOMS, GLOUCESTER. On Saturday, January 25th, 1896
(During the Gloucester Smallpox Epidemic)

. http://www.thedorsetpage.com/History/Smallpox/smallpox.htm

   The Lancet 2002; 360:93 http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140673602093637/fulltext

 As above.

Bechamp wrote thus in 1869 of their role in disease:  ‘In typhoid fever, gangrene and anthrax, the existence has been found of bacteria in the tissues and blood, and one was very much disposed to take them for granted as cases of ordinary parasitism. It is evident, after what we have said, that instead of maintaining that the affection has had as its origin and cause the introduction into the organism of foreign germs with their consequent action, one should affirm that one only has to deal with an alteration of the function of microzymas.'

Andrew Mendelsohn, Princeton dissertation. http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/historyofscience/aboutthecentre/staff/drandrewmendelsohn

On the Anthrax Inoculation [1872] by Robert Koch from Professor K. Codell's book ‘Essays of Robert Koch', Greenwood Press, N.Y., 1987.

Evidence given by Sir John Simon, chief medical officer to the Privy Council,

Preface to Brock's Robert Koch: A Life in Medicine and Bacteriology  by James Strick, Program in Biology and Society,  Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-1501

JSTOR Isis. Vol 86 no 2 (june 1995) pp 268-277. Typhoid Mary stirkes back by Andrew Mendelsohn.

  Cited above.

Chicago Tribune, November 23, 1893 

http://www-micro.msb.le.ac.uk/109/introduction.html Leicester University - notes for undergraduates reading microbiology. 

Landsteiner K, Popper E. Übertragung der poliomyelitis acuta auf affen. Z Immunitätsforsch 1909;2:377-390.

S Flexner and PA Lewis; The Journal of the American Medical Association; 33: 639; 13 November 1909

S Flexner; [Trans M Rec]; 78:924-926; 19 November 1910. Also R Scobey; ‘Is the public health law responsible for the poliomyelitis mystery?' Archive Of Pediatrics; May 1951

F.B. Gordon and colleagues in the Journal of Infectious Diseases,

Personal communication in 2007 to author from Professor Etienne De Harven.

Polio Vaccines and the Origin of AIDS   B. F. Elswood and R. B. Strickler

Medical Hypotheses, vol. 42, 1994, pp. 347-354

G Dalldorf and GM Sickles; ‘An unidentified, filterable agent isolated from the faeces of children with paralysis'; Science; 108: 61; 1948

CW Jungeblut; Journal of Pediatrics; 37: 109; July 1950. R Scobey; Archives of Pediatrics; April 1952

A.B. Sabin, A.B. & L. Boulger, History of Sabin Attenuated Poliovirus Oral Live Vaccine Strains. 1 J. BIOL. STAND. 115, 115-18 (1973).

Last Updated on Wednesday, 27 August 2008 13:17