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(February 9, 1921 - March 14, 2011)
Born in England
Year of Discovery: 1953
Perfected Freeze-Dried Smallpox Vaccine - Made Mass Vaccination Possible
Scientific "breakthroughs" are rarely sudden and rarely the result of one individual's efforts. This is certainly the case in the development of an effective vaccine for smallpox. Leslie Collier built on the earlier work of many scientists, including Edward Jenner, in helping develop a vaccine that led to the eradication of smallpox. Collier's contribution was in perfecting the freeze-drying method of producing the vaccine. This was a critical step in making the vaccine available for mass distribution, as previously the vaccine needed refrigeration. Though the Americans had developed the freeze-drying method and the French had vigorously pursued its application, the production process itself was damaging the active virus. Collier added a key component, peptone, to the process. This addition protected the virus, making it practical to distribute the vaccine worldwide - a step that allowed for the total eradication of smallpox by the 1970s.
Smallpox is one of the most deadly diseases in human history, responsible for destroying the Incas and the Aztecs. Between 1900 and 1970 it killed an estimated 300 million people worldwide - more people than all the wars and genocides combined. Smallpox is a highly contagious airborne virus. The virus enters the body through the nose or mouth, as a result of being infected by the virulent droplets in another person's cough or sneeze. The incubation period is one to two weeks, during which time no symptoms appear. Then a series of symptoms appear over the following 10 to 14 days. The initial symptoms often resemble the flu, including widespread aches, fever, and vomiting. Next a rash, consisting of small red dots, appears inside the mouth and on the tongue. The rash then spreads to the face, down the torso and soon engulfs the entire body. The red dots turn into oozing pustules and fever continues to rack the body. The following two-week period will determine whether a patient survives. The patient continues to be contagious while the pustules are present. In those who survive, the pustules eventually scab over and fall off. But, the patient is riddled with pockmarks, lifelong scars that serve as a reminder of their brush with death.
The first crude smallpox vaccination took place in 1774 when an English farmer vaccinated his wife and two sons with the cowpox virus he retrieved from a neighbor's cow. In 1796 Edward Jenner, an English physician, successfully vaccinated eight-year-old James Phipps with the cowpox virus taken from a milkmaid's hand. Jenner is widely credited as the pioneer of smallpox vaccination; he proved that cowpox inoculation protected against smallpox. In 1908, Americans developed the freeze-drying method for creating vaccines. A French Physician, L. Camus, at the Vaccine Institute in Paris, built on this procedure and, between 1920 and 1940, ten million doses of the smallpox vaccine were sent to the French colonies in Africa. But, there was a problem. The method employed by Camus and others was flawed. Phenol was added to the freeze-dried vaccine to fight bacterial contamination. Though the phenol was effective at killing the bacteria, it also damaged the necessary active virus. Collier, working at the Lister Institute in England, solved this problem in the 1950s. He added peptone, a soluble half-digested protein, which prevented damage to the virus. The resulting freeze-dried vaccine could remain stable for years at temperatures of up to 113 degrees F. When it was time to administer the vaccine, the dry powder was suspended in a 40 percent solution of liquid glycerin. This stable un-refrigerated vaccine was the key in allowing worldwide distribution of the vaccine. As a result, this devastating disease has been totally eradicated, with the last known natural case occurring in Somalia in 1977.
Introduction by Tim Anderson
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Scourge, by Jonathan Tucker, discussing Collier's contribution:
The Life and Death of Smallpox, by Jenifer Glynn, discussing Collier's contribution (p 174):
The Guardian Obituary
The Telegraph obituary
Sinnott Learning Solutions obituary
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The Science Behind the Discovery
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