Meredith Wadman found the story that would become her first book The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease in a reader letter in a 2012 edition of Science magazine. In response to a policy forum about whether tissue donors should be compensated for their contribution to medical research, prompted by Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a reader named Leonard Hayflick wrote that the article’s authors had overlooked the history of a human fetal tissue-derived cell line, WI-38, which had been used to create important vaccines since the mid-1960s. That cell line was the one he had developed. “Oh my god this really is a story, I thought— it’s got abortion in it, it’s got vaccination, it’s got an intellectual property fight, it’s got this scientist who clearly feels very proprietary about these cells,” Wadman recounts over the phone. “So I phoned [Hayflick] almost immediately and said, ‘It sounds like there’s an untold story here,’ and he said, ‘Is there ever.’ ”
Wadman quickly found out that there were many stories involved in the WI-38 cell line, not just Hayflick’s. Her fellowship at the New America Foundation allowed her to travel around the world to pursue them. In personal basements and institutional archives in the Philadelphia area, she unearthed letters detailing the political struggles of two scientists close to Hayflick, Stanley Plotkin and Hilary Koprowski, who wanted to use WI-38 to make vaccines for rubella and rabies. She headed to Stanford in Palo Alto seeking to shine light on all the sides of the flight between Hayflick and the NIH over the who owned the WI-38 cells he had developed at the Wistar Institute (with NIH funding) and took with him to his Stanford lab. She extended her research as far as interviewing Hayflick’s son about how he felt as a Stanford freshman when his father’s lab was raided by federal authorities. She traveled as far as Sweden where the fetal tissue that Hayflick used to make the cells originated. There, she tried to contact the donor, who didn’t wish to speak to her.
She began to uncover more stories of silent participants as she got deeper into the history of the development of the WI-38-derived rubella vaccine. She discovered that in the race to develop a rubella vaccine against stiff competition, Plotkin tested his prototypes in local orphanages and institutions for disabled children. “I didn’t go into writing this with any idea that I would come upon the degree of testing of people who have no choice in the matter and these completely powerless groups like orphans and intellectually disabled children in institutions,” she explained. “It’s simply that as the story unfolded, they were integral to it.”
This part of her reporting might be the most shocking to many readers who, like Wadman herself before researching the book, thought that testing on vulnerable people who could not give consent was the exception in medical research rather than the norm. In the book, Wadman shows the practice to have been accepted in the research community and endorsed by the government in the 1960s. Her reporting on human testing also widens the book from a Great Man history of scientific discovery, demonstrating her sensitivity as a journalist to the contributions of all the people involved in developing the vaccine. She writes in the prologue, “The only way we can partially make it up to these children and untold others is to honor their contribution by making it meaningful—by continuing to vaccinate against rubella and the other diseases that made childhood a perilous journey before vaccines against them existed.” Alexia Nader is a writer living in San Francisco and the managing editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly.