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The Secret South Carolina 'Monkey Farm' That Helped Develop the Polio Vaccine

polio shots
Polio shots are given out in the Lower West Side Health Center, New York City. George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

In the 1940s, America was under a constant threat from polio, a disease that had a then-unknown cause and devastating effects, especially in children. It spread quickly through unclean water and unwashed hands, leading to symptoms like nausea, fatigue, fever and a stiffening of the body.

The summers especially caused surges in infections, particularly around the swimming holes, leading to post-polio paralysis and, in some cases, death. On average, 35,000 people were disabled each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was among the most notable people to get the condition, putting a face to a still uncertain disease.

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The Race for a Polio Vaccine

A vaccine was desperately needed as scientists learned about the transmission process, including the fact that anyone could be a carrier. In the next few years, rival scientists Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin worked with teams in their labs on two completely different vaccines. Sabin worked on an oral vaccine while Salk created an injectable vaccine using a "killed" version of polio.

In his book "Polio: An American Story," David M. Oshinsky writes about the urgency of Salk's work during this time:

"For Salk, there was reason to hurry. The year 1952 was the worst polio year on record, with more than 57,000 cases nationwide. The headlines screamed of "Plague Season" and 'Polio Time.' Twenty-one thousand victims suffered permanent paralysis and about 3,000 died."

From the very beginning of the polio epidemic, monkeys were considered to be essential for research before human trials could take place, becoming the unsung heroes of the fight to defeat the disease. It was through animal research that scientists first discovered that there were three strains of the deadly disease.

The monkeys were purchased, at a high cost, from India and the Philippines and shipped to the United States. Many died in transit so the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, now known as the March of Dimes, began overseeing their import. In 1949, a foundation established a special facility known as Okatie Farms in rural South Carolina to process the monkeys arriving from abroad, according to Oshinsky.

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'The Ellis Island for Monkeys'

Okatie Farms operated in the Pinckney Colony area of Beaufort County in coastal South Carolina. Originally called the Pritchardville Primate Center, the 40-acre (16-hectare) tract of land along the river was called the "Ellis Island for thousands of monkeys from India" by local newspapers.

Naturalist John Hamlet had the job of finding a space for the primate center that was both connected to deep water ports and airports but also remote enough from neighbors. The area he chose closely approximated the natural habitats of the monkeys with its abundance of shady longleaf pines and a mild climate.

The monkeys were originally brought into Savannah, Georgia, one of the region's biggest ports, and taken by truck the 30-odd miles (48 kilometers) to the farm. When air travel became more popular, they were flown via London and New York before traveling by train to the Low Country.

Once they arrived at the farm, veterinarians treated the 2,000 or so rhesus and cynomolgus monkeys before clearing them for transport to research facilities around the country. The monkeys spent 21 days getting acclimated and eating a special diet with scientists carefully monitoring their status. Many went to Salk's facility in Pittsburgh and Sabin's in Ann Arbor where they were injected with vaccines to test their strength against the three polio viruses.

Few locals were aware of the research that was going on at the farm, despite rumors of people encountering the animals. We were unable to discover any opposition to the research facility, perhaps because it was not well-known and also because opposition to using animals in testing was not very common. In the U.S., the movement against animal testing picked up steam around 1980.

"Not until much later did I hear about Pinckney Colony [the community where Okatie was located] and the 'Monkey Farm' from some friends who had lived there," says David M. Taub, the former mayor of Beaufort and a former scientist at the nearby Morgan Island research facility.

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A New Home for South Carolina Monkeys

But the farm's purpose wasn't permanent. Once Salk's polio vaccine was deemed a success and released to the public in 1955, the work of Okatie Farms was no longer necessary, and the facility closed in 1959. (Sabin's oral vaccine came into use in 1961.) The foundation that had established the facility turned its attention to reducing premature births. The monkeys found new homes in labs across the country.

According to a former employee named Louise Crawford, things at the farm were just left as they were, including the monkey cages. A caretaker kept the grass and plant life at bay. The lab was locked up, ready for someone new to take on the important task of preparing monkeys for research. But that day never came.

In 1980, the land and its contents were sold to a development group. The lab equipment was donated to a local school's science department while a farmer claimed the former monkey cages for his own animals. Today the acreage along the Okatie River is mostly residential and privately owned. Thanks to Salk's and Sabin's vaccines, polio cases have plummeted from 350,000 in 1988 to 22 in 2017, according to the World Health Organization.

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