Koprowski Hilary (5 December 1916, Warszawa – 11 April 2013, Wynnewood) – Polish doctor, virologist, immunologist, manager, musician; creator of the first effective vaccine against poliomyelitis (polio; Heine-Medin disease).
He was born into an assimilated Jewish family, as the son of Paweł Koprowski (1882–1957) and Sonia née Berland (1883–1967). His father owned a textile manufacturing and trading company. His ancestor was Samuel Koprowski, postmaster general during the tsarist era. His mother was a dentist.
In 1926, he began attending the Mikołaj Rej Secondary School. From 1928 to 1934, he studied at the State Conservatory in Warsaw. In 1934, he began his studies at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Warsaw.
In June 1938, he married Irena Grazberg (1917–2012), a fellow student; she was a pathologist and cytologist. They had two sons: Claude (1940–2020) and Christopher (born 1951). The older son was a general practitioner, the younger son is a radiooncologist.
In November 1939, thanks to his father's contacts, Hilary left for Italy with his wife and parents. In Rome, he joined the National Academy of St Cecilia; he graduated in 1940. He obtained Brazilian visas, thanks to which he and his family arrived in Brazil in the summer of 1940.
In Rio de Janeiro, he worked for the Rockefeller Foundation – Yellow Fever Research Service. He worked with Edwin Lennette whom, years later, he called his master and only teacher. In December 1944, he arrived in New York with his mother, wife and son.
In January 1945, he was hired by Lederle Laboratories in Pearl River. He had been researching the polio virus since 1946. In January 1948, he and his assistant, T. Norton, took the oral polio vaccine developed from a weakened virus. The oral vaccine was administered to a child for the first time on 27 February 1950 in Letchworth Village. In 1951, at a conference in Hershey, he presented a report on the results of children vaccination. A year later, after exchanging viral strains with Hilary Koprowski, Albert Sabin began research into a live attenuated polio vaccine.
In January 1952, he published a paper on the oral polio vaccine. In 1958, the oral vaccine was administered to 250,000 children in Rwanda and Congo. In autumn 1959, vaccination against poliomyelitis began in Poland (concluded in May 1960). Hilary Koprowski donated 9 million doses of vaccine for this purpose.
Between 1957–1991, he headed the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia. He attracted scientists to Wistar, including those from Poland, who were conducting research in the fields of virology, immunology, vaccinology, biotechnology and veterinary medicine (e.g. research into cancer, rubella, multiple sclerosis or rabies). He transformed the institute into a modern and renowned research facility. Along with Tadeusz Wiktor, he developed a rabies vaccine which required a reduced number of injections; an animal vaccine was also developed. In 1960, Stanley Plotkin invented the rubella vaccine. Since 1977, he conducted research with C. Croce into monoclonal antibodies for the detection of cancer antigens.
In 1979, in Philadelphia, he founded Centocor with C. Croce and W. Gerhart (the third largest biotechnology company in the US). The first product was an antibody for the diagnosis of colorectal and rectal cancer.
He became a professor at Thomas Jefferson University in 1991. He was the director of the Institute of Biotechnology and Advanced Molecular Medicine and the Centre for Neurovirology at the university.
In 1992, the music magazine Rolling Stone published an article suggesting that the HIV virus has spread in Africa as a result of preparing a live vaccine against polio on the basis of material extracted from the kidneys of monkeys carrying the SIV virus. This was thought to be related to the administration of the vaccine in Congo. Hilary Koprowski filed a defamation suit and refuted the allegations – he did not use materials from chimpanzees to produce the vaccine, as confirmed by studies of other scientists. In 1993. "Rolling Stone" carried an explanation and correction, to Hilary Koprowski's satisfaction.
He published over 850 scientific papers. He won 50 grants from the US National Institutes of Health. He was a consultant to the WHO.
He was awarded the Officer's Cross (1994) and the Commander's Cross with the Star of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland (1998), and the Grand Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta (2007). Posthumously awarded the Order of the White Eagle (2018). He received the Order of the Legion of Honour (1997). Knight of the Order of the Smile (2003).
Since 1991, he was a foreign member of the Polish Academy of Sciences. He received honorary doctoral degrees from, among others, the Medical Academies of Lublin (1989), Poznań (1998) and Warsaw (2000) and the Warsaw University of Life Sciences (2008). In 2007, he was awarded the titles of Honorary Citizen of Warsaw and Celestynów. He was a laureate of the first edition of the Outstanding Pole competition (2010), of the Polish Promotional Emblem Foundation "Teraz Polska". In 2003, he established the Koprowski Foundation in Poland.
He was honoured with the "Albert Sabin Gold Medal" (2007).
In 2014, Drexel University in Philadelphia founded the "Hilary Koprowski Prize in Neurovirology".
He was fluent in Polish, English, German, French and Portuguese; he knew Spanish, Italian and Russian. He collected paintings by Dutch artists from the 16th–17th centuries. He has written a novel, short stories, poems, essays, and a play. In his later years, he composed music. He continued to dive until the age of 77. His portraits have been painted by: Feliks Topolski, Leonor Fini and Bo Bartlett. He followed the principle: "don't compete, cooperate".
Koprowski H. Tuszyńska A., Wygrać każdy dzień, Warsaw 1996.
Koprowski H., Dubrovina Y., In Search of Van Dyck, 1993.
Vaughan R., Takty i fakty: życie Hilarego Koprowskiego, Poznań 1999.