Isabel Morgan

An interview with curator Katherine Ott

Illustration of Isabel Morgan, a white woman with short brown hair wearing a white lab coat.
Black and white photo of a group of scientists standing behind a podium with Isabel Morgan in the middle. She is one of two women in the group.

Part One

So polio was the most terrifying disease until HIV and AIDS came along. Because it was a disease that would destroy your motor neurons, your muscles, so you couldn’t breathe, you couldn’t walk, you couldn’t move, you couldn’t swallow— so it was really frightening.

Part Two

It was the biggest issue in the history of health from the 1930s to the ‘60s. And they couldn’t figure out how it got in your body, and then where did it go? Was it ever in your blood? Was immunity possible? How long would immunity last? Virology was a pretty new field, that’s the study of viruses.

An old black and white poster with images of two children running and a young girl with crutches and the title "Vaccinate Your Family Now Against Polio"

Part Three

And often it’s women who are in the lab compiling the data that then other people can use, and Isabel Morgan was one of those people.

Photo of an old newspaper story titled, "Women Play Key Role In 'Dimes' Research"

Part Four

She was one of “the Ph.D. ladies,” the men in the labs called them. Women were doing a lot of the basic science that the men then took credit for.

Part Five

She was, like, two degrees from being Jonas Salk herself, but he couldn’t have done what he did without the work of Isabel Morgan.

She figured out that you could use an inactivated bit of virus and use it on monkeys; nobody thought you could do that. And that’s the basis of Salk’s vaccine that comes just a couple of years later.

And then the second thing was, she, along with David Bodian, figured out there were three different strains of virus that caused polio.

And then the third thing she did was figure out how many antibodies you needed to create immunity. So those are three major contributions.

Black and white drawing of a polio vaccine box, vial, and syringe.

Part Six

Isabel Morgan is in some ways a shadowy figure because she didn’t leave that many papers. She’s not very well known; even in the history of polio, she’s barely recognized.

I was reading a history of polio, and there was a paragraph on her and like, well, who is this? And what else do we need to know? There were a lot of dead ends.

Any big achievement, it’s based on this huge community that goes back generations that are putting together little pieces of the puzzle.

No matter what the event or the issue, we know there were women involved. We know there were people of color. We know there were a range of identities involved in every event. So how do we find them?

As a curator, historian, and author at NMAH for 25 years, Katherine spends time thinking, talking, and writing about how and why people in the past were tagged for being different—because of disease, gender, disability, sexuality, race, or just being annoying.