The Vaccine Race

The Vaccine Race book by Meredith Wadman book cover

The epic and controversial story of a major breakthrough in cell biology that beat back German measles and other devastating diseases.

Until the late 1960s, tens of thousands of American children suffered crippling birth defects if their mothers had been exposed to rubella, popularly known as German measles, while pregnant; there was no vaccine and little understanding of how the disease devastated fetuses. In June 1962, a young biologist in Philadelphia, using tissue extracted from an aborted fetus from Sweden, produced safe, clean cells that allowed the creation of vaccines against rubella and other common childhood diseases. Two years later, in the midst of a massive German measles epidemic, his colleague developed the vaccine that would one day wipe out homegrown rubella. The rubella vaccine and others made with those fetal cells have protected more than 150 million people in the United States, the vast majority of them preschoolers. The new cells and the method of making them also led to vaccines that have protected billions of people around the world from polio, rabies, chicken pox, measles, hepatitis A, shingles and adenovirus.

Meredith Wadman’s masterful account recovers not only the science of this urgent race, but also the political roadblocks that nearly stopped the scientists. She describes the terrible dilemmas of pregnant women exposed to German measles and recounts testing on infants, prisoners, orphans, and the intellectually disabled, which was common in the era. These events take place at the dawn of the battle over using human fetal tissue in research, during the arrival of big commerce in campus labs, and as huge changes take place in the laws and practices governing who “owns” research cells and the profits made from biological inventions. It is also the story of yet one more unrecognized woman whose cells have been used to save countless lives.

Click Here to Read an Excerpt of The Vaccine Race Book, Published Originally by The Guardian

Advance Praise for The Vaccine Race Book

This is a story about the war against disease– a war without end–and the development of enormously important vaccines, but in telling that story, in showing how science works, Meredith Wadman reveals much more. Like all wars, that story includes heroism, risk-taking, persistence, and fighting against the odds, and, like all wars, that story also includes politics, obtuseness, bureaucracy, and fights over money. It’s very well-written and does not oversimplify yet explains clearly even the purely scientific parts of the story. In short, I loved this book.John M. Barry, New York Times bestselling author of The Great Influenza

The Vaccine Race is not just a wonderful, canny, closely observed chronicle of crucial advances in disease and the field of longevity; it is also a work of conscience — a science story with sensibility and soul…. More than any other writer, Wadman is startlingly, utterly lucid about the moral ambiguity of medical endeavor.Peter Petre, New York Times bestselling author and former director of medical coverage and executive editor at Fortune

Meredith Wadman rolls up her sleeves and takes an uncompromising look at the sometimes unethical, often crude, and always rough-and-tumble world of one of the greatest success stories in public health: vaccines. What she finds will no doubt surprise you.Paul A. Offit, MD, author of Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong and Autism’s False Prophets

A gripping story with strong resonance in the age of Zika and Ebola – and a powerful reminder of the ways in which researchers approached the ethics of medical testing only fifty years ago.Henry T. Greely, Director of Stanford’s Center for Law and the Biosciences and author of The End of Sex

The fascinating story of  the scientific battle over — among other important matters–  whether human vaccines should be grown in human or animal cells. The hero of this story is Leonard Hayflick, who favored human cells. Fortunately for all of us, he won out.Stanley M. Gartler, Prof. Emeritus, Medical Genetics, University of Washington

Additional Info

The Vaccine Race was one of the five finalists for the 2016 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award, administered by the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

Links to Purchase

the vaccine race, book



U.K. Edition: The Vaccine Race: How Scientists Used Human Cells to Combat Killer Viruses by Meredith Wadman is published by Doubleday in hardback, price £20.00:


Available in the UK