In October 1960, Dr. Bernice Eddy gave a talk to the Cancer Society in New York without warning her employer, the National Institutes of Health, in advance. She startled the attendees by announcing that she had examined cells from monkey’s kidneys in which the polio virus to be used in polio vaccines was grown, and had found they were infected with cancer causing viruses.
She had decided on her own initiative to test extracts by innoculating newborn hamsters, since these animals developed tumors with a type of virus she and Dr. Sarah Stewart had previously discovered in mice and named polyoma virus. This virus was one of the early known cancer-causing viruses, and was later named the SE (Stewart-Eddy) Polyoma Virus in their honor.
The inoculated hamsters developed tumors similar to those induced with polyoma virus. Her inference was clear: There were cancer-causing monkey viruses in the polio vaccine. She warned an epidemic of cancer in America was in the making. When the word got back to her NIH bosses, they exploded in anger.
When the cussing stopped, her superiors crushed Bernice Eddy professionally. Any mention of cancer-causing monkey viruses in the polio vaccine was not welcomed by NIH. They took away her lab, destroyed her animals, put her under a gag order, prevented her from attending professional meetings, and delayed publication of her scientific paper. In the words of Edward Shorter, author of The Health Century, ‘Her treatment became a scandal within the scientific community.’
Later, it became the subject of a congressional inquiry. In the words of Dr. Lawrence Kilham, a fellow NIH researcher who wrote a letter of protest to the Surgeon General’s office, ‘the presence of a cancer virus in the polio virus vaccine is the matter demanding full investigation.’ Dr. Eddy’s discovery was in fact subsequently validated by Drs. Maurice Hilliman and Benjamin Sweet of Merck. After additional studies, the vaccine was found to not cause tumors in humans, but Dr. Eddy was still restricted by the government from publishing anything about her work.
The work of Dr. Eddy and others led to safe polio vaccines through thorough testing, and provided a major impetus for further research on cancer viruses. The United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare awarded her a Superior Service Medal in 1967.
Bernice Eddy Wooley, Ph.D
born Glendale, WV