Hilary Koprowski – a doctor virologist and immunologist, a great experimenter, pianist, scuba diver, musicologist and expert on art. A candidate for the Noble Prize. A creator of an oral vaccine against polio virus. A man of the so-called Pasteur Club, that is, doctors scientists who tested their vaccines on themselves. A co-creator of a vaccine against rubella and a new vaccine against rabies. A composer of music works for piano. A collectors of paintings, mainly the Dutch and the Italian ones. A Pole speaking beautiful Polish and a polyglot speaking languages like: English, German, French, Spanish, Portugese, Italian and Russian.

Warsaw and Celestynów

Hilary Koprowski was born on 5 December 1916 in Warsaw. His mother – Sonia from Berlandów came from Berdyczowa, a town situated in Ukraine. She was a dentist, and had a dental office in her house. Hilary’s father – Paweł Koprowski took part in a Russian-Japanese war in 1905, and miraculously survived on a sinking ship on the Japanese Sea. He knew English and German perfectly which made it easier for him to trade with the English. He was the owner of a big textile company. Hilary’s parents got married on 28 May 1912 in Warsaw. Hilary was their only son. In 1926 he became a student of the 11th Secondary School named Mikołaj Rej in Warsaw. He also attended a music conservatory where he learnt to play the piano. On his holidays he used to go to Celestynów near Otwock where the Koprowski family had their property, later called ‘Koprówka’. That villa survived the tragic times of the Second World War and was pulled down in 2004. In 1934 Hilary passed the GCSE and began to study at the University named Józef Piłsudski in Warsaw at the Medicine Faculty. He graduated from his medicine studies and the Music Conservatory in Warsaw a.s in 1939. Partly, thanks to help from a friend from the university, younger than him by a year, and his future wife Irena Grasberg, who helped him learn for exams, whereas he practiced on the piano. They got married during their studies, in secret from their parents, in July 1938, but they were still living separately. Only in May 1939 did they decide to live together and Irena got pregnant.


When the first bombs fell onto Warsaw, they left with Hilary’s mother and her nieces and nephews for the estate in Ccelestynów. Hilary’s father decided to stay in Warsaw. The flat of the Koprowski family in Warsaw was destroyed by bombs, and the father was slightly wounded. When civilians began to escape, also the Koprowski family left Celestynów but after a few days they returned. They saw their household had been destroyed and robbed, so they moved to Warsaw. In the beginning of the occupation there were no clear orders about the rules of procedure towards Poles, but the Koprowski family began to be worried about their future because of their Jewish roots. Taking advantage of their acquaintances, they gained visas and left for Italy which was their temporary place to stay in their exile. Mussolini had already been thinking about including Italy in the war. Looking for a safe place for Irena to give a birth to their child, they chose France. Hilary could not go with her there so his father went with her. On 5 February 1940 Claude was born. As a doctor, Irena began to work in Villejuif and also was bringing up her child. It was possible as she got to live in a hospital where she worked. In May 1940 the Germans invaded France and the hospital where Irena worked was militarized. It meant that nobody could leave it. A retired doctor helped her escape to Paris. From Paris she went to Barcelona with Paweł Koprowski. At that time, Hilary and his mother were living in Rome. He earned money by giving piano lessons. He was also employed by Carl Zecchi, a lead Italian pianist, in a Roman Music Conservatory named St. Cecilia. He acquired a diploma and made contacts which later allowed him to leave for Brazil. Everyone met there and having gained visas they went to Estoril and Portugal together from where Paweł flew to England, whereas the Koprowski with their son and Hilary’s mum went to Rio de Janeiro by ship.

In Brazil Hilary could not find work in his profession, so he gave piano lessons again. Whereas Irena worked as a nurse and later as a pathologist in hospital. It was by accident that Koprowski got a job in Rockefeller Foundation in Rio. It was how he met Edwin Lennet working on a vaccine for yellow fever. Being supervised by Lennet, Koprowski learnt rules and laboratory procedures and gained lots of experience in the area of virology. Together they published a few books which became a breakthrough in treating people infected with a virus. It was also by accident that they discovered substance which was later called interferon. Irena – a contract worker – got a suggestion of a post at the Medical Department of the University in Rio from the city board of management, as a specialist pathologist. Despite that she resigned from her career in December 1944 and went to New York with her husband and her family. Having finished studies on yellow fever, as the Rockefeller Foundation withdrew from Brazil, Hilary received a lucrative offer from the USA.

The USA a new homeland. Polio

The Koprowski moved to Pearl River, in the state of New York. In January 1945 Hilary began his work in the Lederle Laboratory on discovering a vaccine for ‘Japanese’ encephalitis, infected by mosquitoes. When the vaccine was ready, Koprowski began to work on a vaccine for polio. At that time the Lederle was managed by a man fascinated with science William Graham Bell, caring about scientists. Epidemics of Heine-Medina disease began to get stronger in America before the war, which stopped the social attention to this problem. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who got ill from polio at the age of 23, perfectly understood the problem. In 1938 he established National Foundation to which he gave a task of elaborating an effective vaccine for this illness. After president died, the foundation received more funds. These grants of the foundation were used by independent teams of scientists run by dr. Jonas Salka and dr. Albert Sabina. Koprowski was in a more difficult situation as he used private funds, but it was his vaccine in a form of alive and weakened virus which was tested on monkeys in 1950, and later it was tested by Koprowski on himself and his cooperator Thomas Norton. Then it was given to 20 children in whom antibodies to polio virus appeared. In January 1952 Koprowski was able to proclaim his work on the precursory vaccine (a year later the results of his experiments were proclaimed by Salk, and then – by Sabin). Beside that his vaccine was given orally, which differentiated it from vaccines elaborated by dr. Salk and dr. Sabin. The first mass vaccination with a vaccine of Koprowski, was carried out in Africa, in Belgian Congo, in 1958. Vaccine of dr. Salka, basing on dead viruses, was troublesome and ineffective, vaccine of dr. Sabin was basing on weakened viruses. However, in 1960 the commission granted Sabin the patent which was a kind of a failure of Koprowski in America. Although he had a respectful opinion about Sabin’s work, he was embittered. Also Sabin in his interviews indicated the priority of vaccine of Koprowski. Albert Sabin, similarly as Hilary Koprowski, was a Pole by origin – he was born in Białystok.

Wistar institute

In Lederle Laboratory Koprowski worked from the year 1957 when he took the function of a director in The Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology in Philadelphia. He received two PhDs then: in Graduate School of Sciences and the second one in the area of medical research. He worked in Wistar for the next 35 years. Under his supervision, this independent research institution elaborated a vaccine for rubella (patent in 1971), thanks to which it was possible to cure this illness in many parts of the world. At that time a team supervised by prof. Koprowski elaborated an effective vaccine for rabies in the form of 4 injections. Next a vaccine for rabies, small pox, bird flu applied orally. Koprowski also carried out research on sensitivity of oocytes to oncogenic viruses or elaboration of monoclonal antibodies for the virus of rabies, as well as anti-genes of colorectal cancer. He was also interested in biological processes resulting from the fusion of somatic cells.

Contacts with Poland

Hearing about problems of polio in Poland, Koprowski decided to help the Polish heath service. Thanks to him, the Wyeth company gave Polish children about 9 million vaccines. The action of vaccination lasted a few months at the turn of the years 1959 – 60, thanks to which the number of the illness cases dropped from over a thousand in 1959 to 30 in 1963. The professor lived and worked in the United States but he considered himself as a Pole who only worked abroad. He supported Polish science, funded scholarship for young scientists from Poland to work in research institutes in the USA. In Poznań he funded the Foundation named the Koprowski, dealing with creating new vaccines on the basis of plants. In cooperation with Polish scientists in the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry PAN (Polish Science Academy) in Poznań Koprowski was conducting research on getting antibodies in lettuce for the virus of hepatitis B. He was awarded by president of Poland with the Grand Order of Poland Rebirth (in 2007). In 1998 he was honoured with the Commanders’ Cross with the Star of the Order of Poland Rebirth. In 2010 he became a laureate of a contest ‘A prominent Pole’, organized by the Foundation of the Polish Emblem Promoting ‘Now Poland’.

After the year 1991

On 22 March 1991 Koprowski stopped being a director of the Wistar Institute. Then he was a professor at the University named Tomasz Jefferson in the Plant of Microbiology and Immunology in Philadelphia and a director of the Neurovirusology Centre and laboratories of the Biotechnology Foundation at this university. Practically he had worked for this centre till the end of his life. A few dozen last years prof. Koprowski devoted to research on new concepts of vaccines. He worked on discovering toxic factors destroying cells of the nervous system in chronic diseases of this system, such as multiple sclerosis. He also put out a thesis about responsibility of viruses for psychical diseases. A lot of his thesis concerned a fight with cancer. He also spent a lot of time on working with genetically modified plants in order to create edible vaccines which later appeared in tomatoes, spinach, lettuce or potatoes. His scientific achievement is enormous and consists of 900 books. Beside his research activity the professor also had a lot of functions in state agendas, organizations and scientific societies.

Family. Hilary and his private life

At the end of the 80s of the last century Koprowski began to write novels and theatrical plays, certainly, about medicine. He was reluctant to computers, but when he saw that PC made it easier to compose music, he made friends with it quickly and connected a keyboard to it. Being interested in the secret and complicated history of the portrait of Carol I, the most valuable work in his paintings collection, he and an art historian Jelena Dubrovina, wrote a book about an artist Van Dyck.

Irena Koprowska was a professor of pathology at the Temple University Medical School and a director of a laboratory there. She conducted research on diagnosing cancer. She got retired in 1987. She died on 16 August 2012. Hilary died 8 months later – on 11 April 201. The professor’s sons followed his career and also became doctors.

Translated by Aneta Amrozik

Niedziela 7/2019 (17 II 2019)

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: